President Barack Obama will release his 2017 budget request Tuesday, and U.S. aid advocates are eagerly waiting to see how key program areas fare. Already Obama has offered hints — and even some clear indications — of what he will ask Congress to fund in the next fiscal year.
Obama’s State of the Union address last month signaled a few of these key priorities, and the recent “working meeting” with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Washington, D.C. attached numbers to the next phase of U.S. assistance to that South American ally.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has clarified U.S. support for the Syrian crisis at the Syria donors conference in London and U.S. agencies are starting to show their cards in response to the Zika virus outbreak that has grown into a global pandemic emergency.
Here’s what we know so far:
Taking Zika seriously
While the president’s 2017 budget request applies to the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Obama is also asking for funds to tackle some more immediate priorities. On Monday, the president asked Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to respond to Zika virus, the global health emergency that has spread fear across the Western Hemisphere.
If appropriated, the fund will support both domestic and international efforts to prepare for and combat the spread of the mosquito-borne disease, which has been linked to birth defects. Two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees will hold a joint hearing Wednesday to examine the U.S. response effort.
In addition to “integrated vector management activities” and new incentives to accelerate research and development of vaccines and diagnostics, the requested funds also include a set aside for an alternative financing model, which USAID has piloted on other big global problems. The Global Health Security Grand Challenge will seek to source “groundbreaking innovations” from anyone with the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit to propose them. USAID saw its largest-ever number of Grand Challenge proposals when the agency issued a similar call for Ebola solutions.
From ‘Plan Colombia’ to ‘Peace Colombia’
Colombian President Santos’ visit to Washington, D.C. last week culminated in a number of announcements about the shape of future U.S.-Colombian development cooperation. Obama disclosed that he will request $390 million in his fiscal year 2017 budget request for bilateral assistance to support implementation of an anticipated peace treaty between the government of Colombia and the FARC insurgent group. The name change — from “Plan Colombia” to “Peace Colombia” — is meant to signal a shift from a relationship that has focused heavily on military assistance to one more focused on rural development and reconciliation.
Peace Colombia includes a ramped-up demining effort in recognition that Colombia claims the second highest number of landmine victims behind Afghanistan. The U.S. will join Norway in a Global Demining Initiative and pitch in $33 million to help Colombia achieve mine-free status by 2021. The two countries also agreed to a range of cooperation strategies around the Zika virus outbreak, though none of these included a specific call for more financing.
Responding to the Syria call
State Secretary Kerry at the Syria donors conference in London last week announced $601 million in additional humanitarian funding for those affected by the war in Syria. He announced another $290 million in development assistance to Jordan and Lebanon to support their ministries of education as they struggle to host an influx of Syrian students.
The administration has yet to indicate what it will request for fiscal year 2017, but Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s introduction of a “resolution urging robust funding for humanitarian relief for Syria” to the Senate Foreign Relations committee suggests some measure of bipartisan support for additional humanitarian relief and development assistance to the region.
According to the State Department, the new funding pledge brings total U.S. spending on the Syria crisis to $5.1 billion since it first began.
The beginning of the end of Malaria
Malaria eradication advocates are optimistic their cause will find its way into solid funding requests, after Obama raised the issue in his State of the Union address last month.
“Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year,” Obama told the 114th U.S. legislature.
While it remains to be seen what exactly Obama meant by pushing Congress “to fund this year,” the president’s elevation of the issue in the month preceding his budget request is already significant, according to advocates for more malaria funding.
“Like with any policy or any priority … it’s really hard to fund it at 100 percent. It’s an enormous burden. But the truth is that America is absolutely leading the way on policy and on funding. We have been for more than a decade, and I think President Obama has ensured that we will continue to be for the next generation,” said Joshua Blumenfeld, managing director of Malaria No More.
Ratcheting up on climate change
Few issues drive a bigger wedge between the Obama administration and the Republican-controlled Congress than climate change, and this appropriations process will test the viability of pledges put forward at the Paris climate conference last year. The White House has hinted at a few new initiatives to keep up the climate momentum.
Obama’s ‘Mission Innovation’ effort to boost clean energy at home and abroad includes a new research and development effort through the Global Development Lab, though the White House hasn’t attached funding commitments to that effort yet.
The biggest line item to watch is the U.S. contribution to the Green Climate Fund. In 2014, the White House announced a $3 billion commitment to the GCF over four years. To meet that pledge, the president will have to start ramping up the annual appropriation. In FY 2016 Obama requested $500 million for the GCF. This year he will have to move closer to $800 million to start closing the gap, said Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam America.
“I completely expect there to be an increased amount,” Coleman said. “Now we just need to continue to solidify the support in Congress.”
In the omnibus budget deal brokered at the end of last year, Congress declined to bar U.S. contributions to the GCF, a move some lawmakers had threatened to make in the past. That bodes well for this next round of appropriations, Coleman said, adding that U.S. engagement early can help improve the GCF’s efficacy and management and build confidence in the new institution.
Plenty of other questions remain unanswered. Chief among them: how will the overall foreign affairs account — the “150 account” — fare in the president’s request? At a time when federal dollars are limited, development advocates realize that prioritizing one issue risks pulling from another. Advocates who haven’t heard strong overtures about their budget lines will be paying close attention on Tuesday — and as the White House defends its budget request on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.
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Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.
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