Peer educators and community advocacy groups give these slips to the community so that when a woman presents herself at the clinic, UNFPA can monitor the success of their work. Photo by: Abbie Trayler-Smith / H6 Partners / CC BY-NC-ND

The United Nations Population Fund is still assessing the full impact of the United States cutting $32.5 million in core funding earlier this month. But the effects are already clear at almost all of the country offices and programs that rely on the U.S., the agency’s second largest donor, Arthur Erken, the agency’s head of communications and partnerships, told Devex.

“The impact is a direct impact. It is not abstract. It really impacts people right there and then, very quickly. If we run out of supplies that has a direct impact,” he said. “When women use family planning and that is not there anymore, they become more vulnerable to unsafe pregnancies and unsafe abortions. There are direct results of providing these services.”

While no single program is facing an imminent risk of termination, all work will be scaled back across the more than 150 countries UNFPA operates in, he added. Fourteen countries received “non-core” UNFPA funding from the U.S. in 2016, but the U.S. funding has backed the UNFPA’s work in all of its countries, except China and a few “rogue” states, such as North Korea.

Countries not facing humanitarian crises and already working with small overall budgets — such as many in Latin America and Eastern Europe — are likely to greatly feel the impact of these cuts, which will also extend to an additional $37 million, approximately, that the U.S. gave last year for non-core, or unearmarked, work, Erken said. Middle Eastern countries responding to the Syrian refugee crisis will also take a serious hit.

In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, for example, the UNFPA office now has a $1.5 million budget cut, as 80 percent of its budget came from U.S. funding. Working only with European Union funding now, the UNFPA team in the camp anticipates it will not be able to reach 12,000 gender-based violence survivors, or help carry out approximately 5,000 newborn deliveries there this year.

“I don’t understand how you can just walk away from helping out women and girls.”

— Arthur Erken, UNFPA head of communications and partnerships

The U.S. step back from the UNFPA comes as part of the Trump administration’s broader retreat from funding for some high profile women’s health initiatives and humanitarian work overseas. President Donald Trump has signed an expanded version of the ”global gag rule,” which withholds all global health assistance to foreign NGOs who provide any abortion-related service. He has also threatened to dramatically reduce overall funding to the U.N.

The UNFPA began to plan for U.S. cuts as soon as Trump was unexpectedly elected in November 2016, explained Erken. The agency notified individual country offices, and told them they will have less money to carry out their programs.

“We start to think: ‘Let’s assume we won’t have funding from the U.S. for our core parts,’” Erken said.

Trump’s action followed the example of a long line of U.S. Republican presidents who, since 1985, have defunded the UNFPA because of claims that it supports or participates in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. A foreign operations funding provision called the “Kemp-Kasten amendment” gives the president leeway to determine whether an aid recipient has engaged in this type of work — and if so, to discontinue funding.

Previous Republican presidents have sent missions to the UNFPA’s China office to investigate its work affiliated with the Chinese government’s now-defunct “One Child” policy. All of the missions, in the past, have turned up no evidence of the UNFPA engaging in coercive abortions or sterilizations.

What came as a surprise this time around was that Trump never sent a mission to meet with the expectant UNFPA office in China, which operates on a shoestring budget of $1.5 million — none of which actually comes from the U.S.

In a March 31 letter to U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker however, the State Department said that it was cutting funding to the UNFPA because of a violation of the amendment. Yet the letter also said that “there is no evidence that UNFPA directly engages in coercive abortions or involuntary sterilizations in China.”

Multiple international health policy, research and advocacy groups have also refuted the claims that UNFPA has provided coercive abortions or forced sterilizations in China.

“I’m not surprised, but seeing it [the letter] still hurts. Seriously, nothing could be further from the truth. I know what we do and cannot do,” said Erken, who previously led the UNFPA offices in Bangladesh and Vietnam. “We work so hard to get to where we are. What we have done is so in line with U.S. values and it is mind boggling for me that you can stop that. I don’t understand how you can just walk away from helping out women and girls.”

The UNFPA has reported that U.S. funding last year helped them prevent 947,000 pregnancies and save the lives of 2,340 women dying from pregnancy and childbirth. This partnership also helped UNFPA, which does not promote abortions, prevent 295,000 unsafe abortions.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is said to be appealing to donors to increase their support to the UNFPA, U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said recently.

The loss of approximately $30 million accounts for approximately 10 percent of the UNFPA’s core funding, which goes toward the management and execution of its various programs and technical offices on reproductive and sexual health, as well as gender-based violence. Supplementing lost U.S. funding for its non-core funding, which often goes toward humanitarian work, might prove an easier task, Erken suggested.

The UNFPA was also working with $24 million in carry-over U.S. funds from the past two years, but that money has been used.

When former President George W. Bush canceled UNFPA funding, the U.S. was not as big of a donor to the agency, lessening the blow — and the relatively strong global economic climate also made it easier for other countries to quickly step forward and offer to fill the gap. That hasn’t happened this year.

Some European fundraising initiatives, such as the She Decides fund, which has raised about $190 million, may help the UNFPA offset its budget gap of more than $700 million until 2020, as the Guardian reports.

But the UNFPA, moving forward, will likely begin to look beyond the U.S. as a steady, significant donor.

“We do expect there will be a realignment of the U.S. position and also the U.S. aligning itself with more conservative forces. That, of course, is a concern and a big concern that goes beyond the money. It cannot happen every four or eight years we are sitting here and all of a sudden the U.S., because of internal politics, changes its foreign development assistance,” Erken said.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.