Timing could not be worse to cut foreign assistance

The White House is proposing a massive cut to the international affairs budget again this year. The timing could not be worse. More than 350 million children – more than the entire population of the United States – live in conflict zones today, and conflict is more dangerous for children now than at any time in the last 20 years. Now is the time to do more - not less - to protect these children.

In today’s conflicts, both armed forces and non-state armed groups are fighting in populated civilian areas and targeting playgrounds, schools and hospitals. They are also cutting children off from food, water and medicine, rejecting international norms to ensure access to humanitarian assistance.

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Children are not only targets - they are also used as weapons. Boys and girls, some as young as eight years old, have been recruited by militants to serve as combatants, messengers, porters, or domestic servants—many children are also the victims of sexual violence, including rape.

Save the Children worked with the Peace Research Institute Oslo to study the new trends in warfare that are putting more children on the front lines of conflict, conducting one of the most comprehensive overviews of existing data on armed conflict and children to date. The War on Children report draws on case studies of children and their families in conflict-affected countries, and interviews with 40 experts, including former senior military officials, strategists and historians, legal experts and humanitarians.

One of the children interviewed was Kabala,* a 17-year-old boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He lost both of his parents at an early age. When conflict broke out, Kabala was recruited by friends to join the local armed group and was promised a good salary and rewards, which he planned to use to pay for school. Drugged and under the influence of alcohol, Kabala was sent to the frontlines with only sticks and told he was invincible. After seeing his friends die, he managed to return home alive, but is still haunted by his memories.

Kabala’s story is gut wrenching, but he is not alone. I hear too many stories like these when I travel to the areas where Save the Children works. On a daily basis, our staff witnesses the horrifying consequences that prolonged exposure to violence has had on children’s physical and psychological health. Our programs, some funded through the U.S. International Affairs Budget, provide safe spaces for learning, psychological first aid, and lifesaving services. These vulnerable children need this help now more than ever.  

Now is the time for the U.S. to work with governments and partners to uphold and enforce the international laws and standards agreed to by the global community after World War II. These include ensuring that schools and hospitals are safe places for learning and healing, not targets of war. We need to ensure states and armed groups abide by these standards.

The U.S. and its partners must hold accountable those who violate these laws and norms. This requires collecting better data on violations of children in conflict and suspending arms sales to countries listed for grave violations in the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict report.

We can also better protect children by putting additional resources into peacebuilding and peacekeeping, and improving training for military troops on child protection and gender issues. This proves to be a good investment as well. According to the Global Peace Index 2017, every $1 invested in peacebuilding can lead to a $16 decline in the cost of armed conflict.

Together, we can continue to rebuild shattered lives by increasing investment in case management programs and by training local mental health professionals, teachers and community health workers to help children suffering from conflict-induced trauma.  But without strong U.S. funding through the International Affairs Budget, these programs and policies would not be possible.

When we invest in the next generation’s safety, health and education, we stop the cycle of violence and support stability in conflict affected regions. As we’ve heard directly from humanitarians, diplomats, and military officials alike, foreign assistance is a smart investment for all of us.

Carolyn Miles is president & CEO of Save the Children, an international humanitarian organization dedicated to giving every child a health start, protection from harm and an opportunity to learn.

*Name has been changed to protect the child.