WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate appropriators were quick to dismiss the administration’s budget request, which proposed slashing global development funding. Instead, they asked several questions to highlight areas where they thought the proposed cuts would be particularly detrimental in a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
They didn’t, however, seem to blame U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, who was testifying.
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“We’re not going to approve this budget reduction. It’s insane, it makes no sense, it makes us less safe,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who chairs the state and foreign operations subcommittee, said of the budget. “I don’t know who writes these over in the White House, but they clearly don’t understand the value of soft power.”
He added that he was confident the committee would restore the 23% cut, which he called a short-sighted approach to the problems in the world.
But Graham and Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, who is the ranking member of the committee, praised the work Green is doing and said their comments were not directed at him.
Graham asked Green if USAID could wisely spend the additional money if Congress restored the proposed cuts, to which Green replied yes.
When asked about whether he thought cuts to democracy, human rights, and governance were a good idea, Green reiterated his line of the day about the budget: “It’s an attempt to balance fiscal responsibility here at home with our leadership role and national security imperatives around the world.”
The wide-ranging hearing addressed a number of foreign aid priorities, including:
Countering Russia and China
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USAID is working to push back against “the rising anti-democratic influence of China and Russia,” Green said, adding that U.S. aid is done differently. “We do foreign assistance, they do predatory financing. There are striking differences in the two models of engagement, it’s not something we should shy away from talking about over and over again.”
He also said USAID is getting ready to “unveil a framework for countering malign Kremlin influence, especially in Europe and Eurasia.” The fiscal year 2020 request prioritizes $584 million to support that work, Green said.
USAID will continue to hire additional staff aligned with its strategic planning and priorities, Green said. Before the end of 2020, USAID will hire 140 career track foreign service officers, it has approved more than 200 new civil service positions, and has 10 finalists for the USAID Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program.
Northern Triangle and Venezuela
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Green fielded a number of questions about the administration’s decision to freeze assistance to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the three countries known as the Northern Triangle. He said the Department of State is conducting a review, but that “we believe our programs are part of the answer” and the fiscal year 2020 budget allocates resources to the Northern Triangle.
Green added that he is hopeful USAID will be able to continue its work in the region and that the agency will continue modifying what it does and working on more metrics to do the work better.
Green also said USAID is scenario planning for what happens if Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro loses power. He was asked to submit a supplemental budget request to Congress at that time to ensure that USAID has the resources to stabilize the country.
Senators and Green expressed concern about the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with members of the committee asking whether it was wise to cut the country’s aid budget. Green said there is a “labyrinth of challenges” in DRC, but one thing that is needed is a more aggressive vaccine strategy, a point he made in a letter to World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The investments we’ve made on the global health side have been strong and effective,” he said. “What makes this pandemic challenge among the most daunting …[is] the answer to it requires more than global health and humanitarian investments, it will take development investments.”
Mexico City Policy
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, asked for information from the administration about the impacts of the Mexico City Policy, or “global gag rule,” which states that foreign NGOs that receive any U.S. global health assistance are prohibited from performing or promoting “abortion as a method of family planning.” That includes offering legal advice or counseling related to abortion. “I have real concerns that this policy was not properly vetted and is having severe impacts on our global health programs,” she said.
Green said the administration will release in May a new report about the impacts of the policy, the completion of which was delayed due to the shutdown. The administration is also working on some frequently asked questions and additional information about the standard language of the policy, in line with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement in late March that the policy applies to all subgrantees of foreign NGOs that receive money from the U.S., that will be accountable for monitoring and ensuring all of their partners abide by the policy.