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Slashing aid puts America's present - and future - interests at risk

by Robert Walker | Population Institute
Tuesday, 14 March 2017 10:29 GMT

Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cutting support for family planning, poverty reduction and food aid can push more young people into the hands of extremists

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump faces its first real foreign policy crisis, and it is not Russia or North Korea.

It’s an arc of political instability and conflict starting in West Africa, sweeping across the African Sahel, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, and terminating in Afghanistan. Unfazed, the Trump administration proposes to slash funding for the U.S. State Department and USAID.  

That would be a grievous mistake, for such cuts would severely limit our ability to respond - short of military force - to a number of emerging crises that threaten American interests. As Defense Secretary James Mattis declared when he was Commander of the U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” 

Echoing that concern, more than 120 retired three and four-star generals recently wrote a letter urging Congress to reject the proposed cuts in funding for the State Department and international assistance.

The populations of the most crisis-ridden countries in the world, many of which have already reached critical density, are still growing, while resources are shrinking. Water scarcity in many areas is acute.

Drought, record temperatures, and unsustainable farming practices are reducing agricultural yields, and oil reserves are being steadily depleted.  Decades of conflict show no signs of abating, and with large numbers of unemployed youth in these countries, Boko Haram, ISIS and other terrorist organizations have little trouble replenishing their ranks.

We confront a storm that has been gathering for decades, one that is not defined by religion, ethnicity, or political ideology, and not confined within national borders. Tens of millions of refugees and displaced persons are seeking shelter from it. And while some have found refuge in Europe or North America, the vast majority of them never make it that far. They live in refugees camps, dependent on emergency food aid for their survival. 

Globally, the number of refugees and displaced persons has reached 65 million, the highest level since World War II.  Many of them are escaping war or persecution, but an equal number are fleeing drought and other natural disasters. 

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), the largest provider of emergency food aid, recently issued an emergency $4.4 billion appeal to help counter the risk of famine in four countries: South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northern Nigeria. The threat of famine, however, is not confined to those countries. 

The number of food-insecure people in Uganda recently soared to 10.9 million.  Another 11 million in the Lake Chad basin are in dire need of food.  Some of these food emergencies are the result of conflict or drought, but population growth projections and climate change forecasts suggest that these food emergencies, in some form, are here to stay.

The President declared in his inaugural address that he would put “America first.” In pursuit of that directive, the Trump administration now proposes to slash funding for the State Department and USAID  and our support for "first responders" like WFP and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

The Trump administration is proposing a 30 percent cut in total funding for international affairs. A reduction of that size would require steep cuts in development assistance, perhaps as high as 50 percent.

Such cuts, in turn, would hamstring our ability to alleviate the hunger and severe poverty that give rise to political instability and conflict. The proposed cuts, moreover, would have an enduring impact on U.S. development assistance, as it could take years to rebuild the infrastructure needed to sustain effective operations.

Large cuts in USAID funding would also necessitate cuts in U.S. international family planning assistance.  That would be a mistake, as U.S.-supported family planning programs are helping to slow rapid population growth in some of the least stable countries in the world, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Yemen.

America is not well-served by isolationist policy that ignores vital interests abroad.  “America first!” may be expedient politics, but it is not sound policy.

Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute and the author of a recent report, “Demographic Vulnerability: Where population growth poses the greatest challenges"