US lawmakers to aid officials: Why cut aid to critical countries?

Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Photo by: Talk Radio News Service / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S. congressmen on Thursday quizzed top aid officials why the United States wants next year to provide less aid to critical countries but release money to countries with poor records of democracy.

Speaking at the House foreign affairs committee budget hearings, aid officials also allayed fears raised by lawmakers over the lack of accountability and wastage in frontline countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why China?

Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen noted that the U.S. Agency for International Development has cut democracy programs in Cuba in times when a number of pro-democracy activists are being hidden by the president’s “thugs.”

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said the proposed funding for Cuba is just enough. “We believe the president’s budget of $50 million reflects an appropriate investment and they have the capacity to implement it,” he told the House foreign affairs committee.

Meanwhile as the United States cuts funding for Cuba, it extends aid to prosperous China, a country that holds about $3.25 trillion in foreign currency reserves.

“USAID has requested $4.5 million in economic support funds for China. How do you justify that? Particularly we have a $16.8 trillion debt,” Republican representative Steve Chabot asked the head of the U.S. development agency.

The proposed aid, Shah clarified, does not directly support the Chinese government.

“We don’t provide any support to government. The $4.8 million is specifically to help Tibetan communities improve livelihoods, promote sustainable development, and preserve cultural traditions,” he said.

Worse records

Chabot also blasted USAID’s proposal to give aid to Vietnam: “Their human rights record unfortunately is not good. It has been requested an $18 million increase over the past year. How do you justify that?”

Shah countered that USAID is actually reducing its investment in the Southeast Asian country.

“I would note that the compared to FY ‘12 in real number, the FY 14 request is an overall 12 percent reduction in our investment,” Shah said. “And our focus there is to maintain our support for the PEPFAR as well to support civil society.”

Citing latest corruption index, Chabot also pointed out that Indonesia is perceived to be more corrupt this time than in the past. But the country, he said, was able to clinch a threshold program with the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

“All of the countries, including Indonesia, were selected because they passed our corruption indicator (…) “We look in terms of if corruption is institutionalized.” MCCCEO Daniel Yohannes explained.

Fears over fund misuse

As lawmakers tried to dig deeper for answers over USAID’s budget priorities in FY 2014, at the same time they raised concerns over frontline countries that continue to receive huge aid assistance from United States.

Democratic representative Lois Frankel asked Shah about accountability mechanisms in place to “avoid the kind of wastage that we have heard about.”

Shah said the solution is in the hands of America alone. Last year, he noted, more a dozen aid partners drew up an accountability framework from where Afghanistan’s future aid lies heavily.

“If Afghanistan does not meet clear criteria (…) then we will pull back our aid assistance and we will do that in concert with more than a dozen international partners,” Shah said.

Republican congressman Brad Sherman asked the USAID chief “to what degree Islamabad [can] determine where our aid is focused.”

Shah replied, “We design [the plans] together. We absolutely retain the capacity and authority to select projects and oversee their implementation.”

This year, the administration is requesting about $370 million for the West Bank and Gaza.

Florida’s Letinen asked Shah: “With [Palestinian] Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s resignation casting a greater shadow in the future makeup of the Palestinian Authority, and with the knowledge of corruption is rampant within that body, do you believe [they have] adequate internal controls to effectively deliver aid?”

Shah said he is confident about the controls in place when providing aid to the Palestinians.

“We do have strict controls in how any specific transfers to the Palestinian Authority are conducted,” Shah replied. “And we’re confident that it will continue as we have run it in the past.”

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About the author

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    John Alliage Morales

    As a former Devex staff writer, John Alliage Morales covered the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community. Prior to joining Devex, John worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data, and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.