Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Circle of Protection around Foreign Assistance and Emergency Aid

Last fall, the members of the Social Justice Ministry at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church asked me to write a piece about foreign aid for their quarterly newsletter. Here is the piece in English. (And the group did a marvelous job translating the piece into Spanish!)

The words are are especially relevant in light of our 2012 Offering of Letters, which asks Congress to place a circle of protection around both foreign assistance and emergency aid (as well as nutrition programs and tax breaks for working people).  You can read the piece by clicking the links above or you can read it here:

Foreign Aid Reform: Keeping Assistance to Developing Countries
Carlos Navarro is volunteer state coordinator for Bread for the World

What percentage of our national budget do you think goes to foreign aid? If your response is 1%, you are in the minority. A recent poll conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found that on average, respondents thought that 10% of our budget is devoted to foreign assistance. What’s more, 1 in 5 respondents thought that as much as 30% of our budget was devoted to foreign aid.

But this does not tell the whole story. Only half of that 1% is allocated for programs that actually help people, such as water, agriculture, education, and environmental protection. The rest goes to military assistance to countries like Israel and Egypt.

The conversation is more relevant than ever in the current political environment, where the talk in Washington these days centers on budget cuts. And cutting foreign aid is the path of least resistance.

With the reality that the federal budget is going to be cut, it’s more important than ever to make programs more efficient so that our efforts are truly directed at meeting the needs of poor and hungry people.

With the reality that the federal budget is going to be cut, it’s more important than ever to make programs more efficient so that our efforts are truly directed at meeting the needs of poor and hungry people.

Our current system of providing development assistance is a mess, at times bureaucratic and extremely wasteful. Here’s the problem: our policies are still guided by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), an outdated document written during the Cold War era. Nearly 500 pages long, it includes hundreds of overlapping and uncoordinated goals, provisions, and directives. The programs authorized under the FAA are executed by at least 12 departments, 25 different agencies, and almost 60 government offices.

Think about it. Because of bureaucratic problems, only 40% of total U.S. foreign assistance in recent years has gone to programs that work in poor communities to immunize children; train teachers; build water wells, schools, and rural roads; and provide agricultural training to help farmers increase their productivity. We can do better.

But straightening out the foreign aid mess can only go so far. As Christians, we must continue to place a high priority on helping other people both with emergency, short-term needs as well as with long-term development efforts that will help bring people out of poverty. This cannot be accomplished if the budget process cuts the already-small 0.5% of our federal budget.

“We’re saying a budget is always a moral document, whether [it’s for] a family, a church, a city, a state, a nation. It reveals our choices, and our choices reflect our values,” said Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent theologian and editor of Sojourners magazine.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed a similar sentiment. On Sept. 1 of this year, the bishops wrote, "We especially fear the costs of undermining poverty-focused international assistance, which is an essential tool to promote human life and dignity, advance solidarity with poorer nations, and enhance global security…Substantial cuts to these programs would be devastating to many who struggle daily to survive and to find shelter, food and medicine. These cuts could result in the loss of innocent lives...."

In addition to cutting long-term development assistance, Congress is putting the ax to emergency aid. The House of Representatives recently voted on a budget proposal for FY2012, cutting emergency food assistance by 75% compared with FY2008 levels.

So why are we cutting this type of support when the Horn of Africa is suffering its worst drought in 60 years? “The budget cuts would make it all but impossible for us to respond to crises like these in the future,” said Tony Hall, director of the nonprofit Alliance to End Hunger and a former U.S. representative from Ohio.

According to Hall, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), these cuts put more than 12 million people at risk of serious malnutrition, starvation, and even death. More than 500,000 Somalis have already fled the worst areas of their country, seeking food and water across the border in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. “If enacted, these cuts will decrease the U.S. commitment to addressing global hunger from 30% of the current global total need to less than 15%,” said Hall.

So as we seek to make foreign aid more efficient, we also urge you to join us in asking our elected officials to create a Circle of Protection around the programs that help the most vulnerable in our country and around the world.

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