US president Donald Trump’s proposals to slash overseas aid risks destabilising the world’s most fragile nations and inflaming extremism, aid groups and former US officials warn.
“Cuts of the order of magnitude under consideration would be potentially devastating,” said Kevin Watkins, head of Save the Children UK. “At a time when subSaharan Africa is facing the prospect of famine in three countries, cuts in support to UN agencies would be a death sentence for many children.”
In his budget this month, Mr Trump proposed slashing spending for the state department and the US Agency for International Development (USAid) by 28 per cent, while increasing funding for the Pentagon by 9 per cent.
His planned cuts come at a time when the UN is warning that the world faces its biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war, with 20m people facing starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria.
Mr Trump’s budget has also drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats and it has little chance of being passed by Congress in its current form. Still, his intention to slash funding for overseas aid has triggered warnings that cuts to humanitarian and development programmes would be a direct blow to the US’s counterterrorism efforts.
“To combat terrorism we need more than just military spending, we need to address the underlying causes that make people opt for these lives and livelihoods [as extremists],” said Allegra Baiocchi, the UN’s top humanitarian official in west and central Africa.
She called that region, which has been plagued by attacks from Islamist extremists, a “case in point”.
“Starting from Mali and across the Lake Chad basin, I think it’s no coincidence that the greatest areas of insecurity are also the most impoverished,” she said. “There’s really a correlation to extremism.” Poverty, unemployment and scarce opportunities for quality education and healthcare are widely acknowledged as root causes of Islamist insurgencies plaguing Nigeria, the continent’s top oil producer, and more impoverished states like Somalia and Mali, experts say.
Though overseas aid accounts for less than 1 per cent of the US budget, it is vital for groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“A funding cut of this size would have an immediate effect on our capacity to respond in frontline places,” said Dominik Stillhart, director of operations at the ICRC, which relies on the US for about a quarter of its $1.6bn field operations budget. “Regional and global insecurity emanates today from precisely those areas of fragility where people are most affected by conflict.”
The proposed cuts would also curb the ability of UN agencies and international aid groups that receive US support to respond to crises in Africa and the Middle East, aid officials say.
The UN is appealing for $4.4bn to tackle looming famines in the four nations where 20m people are at risk of starvation.
Mr Trump wants to reduce or end funding to international organisations and programmes that do not directly advance US foreign policy interests and shift the focus to military spending. He also wants to decrease US contributions to the UN’s peacekeeping and core budgets on the grounds that other countries should “step up” and spend more to combat global crises.
Jeremy Konyndyk, head of USAid’s foreign disaster assistance agency under former president Barack Obama, said the US already lagged behind other wealthy countries in overseas spending.
“It’s not an ‘America First’ policy, it’s an ‘America dumb’ policy,” he said. “A strong defence department without strong civilian counterparts is not a strong defence department.”
Johnnie Carson, a former US assistant secretary of state for Africa, said it was critical to have a “balanced and broadbased development and security policy towards Africa”.
“Focusing on security issues alone undermines the ability to address root causes of instability and conflict,” Mr Carson said. “Instability overseas almost anywhere, including in Africa, has an impact on the United States.”
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