Don't let foreign aid fall off the fiscal cliff

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On the chopping block is foreign assistance, which provides lifesaving aid to millions of vulnerable people, including Syrian refugees fleeing horrific violence and seeking safety and help in neighboring countries. The consequences of having the budget axe fall on foreign aid at this time could be dire.

The Syrian conflict is in its 20th month and displacement into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq has more than tripled during the last three. By year’s end, it’s estimated that 700,000 Syrian refugees will be spread out across the region, overwhelming the communities hosting them and fueling a humanitarian crisis.

Last week, I visited a hospital wing in Amman, Jordan, filled with Syrian refugees. There, I met a father from Homs who had been out buying bread when his neighborhood came under siege.  Now he is paralyzed from the chest down from shrapnel wounds. His wife and eight-year-old son keep vigil at his hospital bed, day and night. Their alternatives are few. They either move to a refugee camp, a grim prospect as winter approaches, or become part of a massive, underserved and desperate urban refugee population.

Meanwhile, other large-scale humanitarian emergencies have worsened or unfolded in the past year.

An estimated 18 million people are food insecure in Africa’s Sahel region because of chronic poverty and crushing drought, and four million children are malnourished. In Mali, conflict in the north, which has caused the displacement of some 400,000 people, has exacerbated its food crisis. Violence in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states of Sudan has forced 175,000 refugees to flee to South Sudan and an additional 65,000 to Ethiopia.

Violence continues to spiral in eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting repeatedly uproots communities, disrupts food production and shuts down health services. And whenever conflict escalates there, so does violence targeting women. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis has worsened, with unrest and natural disasters uprooting more than half a million people.

All told, more than 44 million people are currently displaced by conflict around the world—the highest number in 15 years.

My organization, the International Rescue Committee, is on the ground in these and other conflict and disaster zones, responding to pressing humanitarian needs. We see firsthand how foreign assistance is saving lives and easing the suffering of countless people.

The need for the United States to respond to global humanitarian emergencies is increasing exponentially at the very time that across-the-board cuts may go into effect.  

While we appreciate the daunting budget decisions ahead, foreign aid represents less than one percent of all federal spending, and non-war foreign assistance has already been cut by 15 percent over the last two years. An additional 8.2 percent reduction in foreign aid will undoubtedly cut the very programs that enable the United States to respond to human suffering and foster economic growth and stability.  It will put millions of lives at risk and set the U.S. back years in its effort to lift people out of poverty and reduce dependency. Such cuts would be shortsighted and would not solve America’s fiscal woes.

America’s continued leadership in foreign policy and foreign assistance is critical, but it cannot happen on a shoe-string budget. The U.S. government must have the right tools at its disposal to conduct effective diplomacy, encourage development and provide humanitarian assistance to effect positive change in areas where it’s desperately needed.

In the weeks ahead, we hope the Administration and Congress will reach an agreement that moves America off this precarious fiscal cliff while preserving America’s leadership in foreign assistance and its commitment and ability to protect the world’s most vulnerable.

Waxman is vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.