Finally, a federal budget, but the wreckage is real

Finally, a federal budget, but the wreckage is real
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During a trip to Sierra Leone last year I was stunned when 10,000 people turned out at a sports stadium in Kabala to celebrate something we take for granted — free public education. The event also marked the extension of a school lunch program, thanks to a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program.

Sierra Leone President H.E. Julius Maada Bio pledged his administration’s prioritization of children’s education. U.S. Ambassador Maria E. Brewer quoted Benjamin Franklin: “An investment in education always pays the highest returns.” A children’s choir sang — girls in blue smocks, boys in crisp white shirts and khaki shorts. 

That uplifting experience, however, was followed by heartbreak. I witnessed in the space of a few days both the benefits of American international aid and the despair that results when that help is withdrawn prematurely and abruptly.

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My organization, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), learned in August 2017 from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), that a $17 million, five-year project in the rural Tonkolili region in Sierra Leone had been terminated after only 10 months. The project, meant to help feed and educate people emerging from the Ebola crisis, was in line with Congressional and administrative priorities and was fulfilling program expectations. The apparent cause of the program’s cancellation was a surprise: the tortuous federal budgeting process of the past few years.

Washington recently breathed a sigh of relief that Congress passed and the president signed this year’s federal budget. Over the last few years, though, the delays in the budgeting process that have become commonplace have caused real harm to suffering people overseas.

Here’s why. 

The administration has proposed slashing the foreign aid budget the last three years. Agencies such as USAID have sometimes based their spending plans and projections on that scaled-back budget request. They trim and prioritize programs and countries accordingly, though constitutionally Congress determines annual budgets. Even though Congress has indeed rejected the administration’s cuts each year, critical programs are often left in limbo or eliminated.

CRS decided to investigate the impact of federal budget delays and uncertainty within our own sphere of operations. Our findings show multiple projects were significantly harmed, including those that help children affected by HIV and AIDS, orphans, and other vulnerable people. As part of our review, we took an even closer look at the impacts of the cuts to one of our Sierra Leone projects.

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Sierra Leone is desperately poor. It ranked 184 out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index in 2018. With more than half the population engaged in subsistence agriculture, real economic progress will only come to the country when farmers learn to improve yields and to better market their products.

That was precisely one of the goals of the project we were implementing in Tonkolili. And it was working. We found that farmers in 3,000 households stopped using slash and burn practices that deplete soil. Many saw their crop yields improve dramatically in a short time.

But then, after a mere 10 months, the U.S. government abruptly pulled the plug on the project. About 30,000 needy people in Sierra Leone who had begun to receive nutrition and agricultural assistance were suddenly cut off. What’s more, companies that had begun investing in the region pulled out, including one planning to build storage facilities as part of a farm marketing network.

“They fed us with an empty spoon,” said one community leader in Tonkolili.

To avoid such missteps in the future, we are calling on the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct a meta-analysis on the impacts of budget uncertainty as well as cuts and delays on all foreign aid programs. We are also urging more realistic budget proposals by the administration, and a return to order in the appropriations process in Congress.

The loss of trust and faith between U.S.-funded program implementers and those we serve overseas is as damaging and heartbreaking as the loss of project supplies and impacts.

CRS has been with the people of Sierra Leone through good times and bad. So has the U.S. government. The celebration I witnessed at the soccer stadium last year highlights the enormous amount of goodwill that currently exists between the U.S. and Sierra Leone. Let’s not allow the misguided decisions happening in Washington to reverse that.

Bill O’Keefe is Executive Vice President, Mission, Mobilization, and Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services.