By: Savannah Fox
Next week marks the 56th anniversary of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, signed by President John F. Kennedy on November 3, 1961, establishing the popular U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, for the first time in decades, American foreign assistance budget is facing major threats of being significantly slashed under President Donald Trump with his ideologies of nativism and isolationism.
Proposing cuts amidst the worst slate of humanitarian crises in recent decades is breathtakingly cruel, leaving the most vulnerable including the millions battling against violent extremism, famine, war, and deadly health challenges with no support.
Making up roughly 0.7 percent of the budget, U.S. poverty-focused foreign assistance funding goes towards critical institutions focused on humanitarian aid and impacts billions of lives around the world. In March, President Trump proposed a 32 percent cut, which would translate into deep cuts for all programs funded by the foreign assistance budget including people facing extreme poverty, survivors of natural disasters, and the millions facing famine in the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Such a proposal would also end up disproportionately affecting women and girls, with women making up to 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty.
The cut would take away all food aid funding for over 37.5 million people at a time when over 30 million face famine and humanitarian crises in Somalia, Northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen. Women and girls would face the harshest consequences from these cuts because women are generally the first to sacrifice their food consumption and de-prioritize their basic needs when a crisis hits. The number of children at higher risk of malnutrition due to an inability to access nutrition services would skyrocket to three million more, largely affecting young girls who are usually fed last in the family status structure. Beyond the risk of starvation and malnutrition, women and girls have an escalated risk of maternal health risks because of poor nutrition.
Globally, 61% of maternal deaths occur in fragile states where many are affected by natural disasters or violent conflicts such as those currently driving the famine areas. The reckless cuts would include zeroing out family planning funding which would have disastrous effects, particularly on those in fragile states. Without family planning, women have no choice on whether or not to delay pregnancy due to famine or violence, putting women and girls at high risk of pregnancy complications, malnutrition, or maternal mortality. Experts estimate Trump's proposed cuts would lead to 3.3 million more abortions, 15,000 more maternal deaths, and eight million more unintended pregnancies. After decades of data proving that an increase in foreign assistance funds towards global health has a direct impact on lowering diseases and maternal mortality, a cut this large would set back the health community decades and immediately cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children around the world.
There would also be a 43% cut to international disaster assistance, which would impact both rapid response disaster relief, including earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as slow onset disasters like drought and conflict. Emergencies have different effects on women and girls than they do on men and boys. Due to social norms, women and girls rarely know how to swim or they are confined to the house, making it difficult to evacuate when natural disasters strike. Forms of violence against women and girls also increase dramatically during natural disasters and armed conflict, which means they must also deal with the after-effects of emergencies where they are victims of rape, trafficking, sex slavery, forced prostitution, and child marriages for decades after the violence occurred. Gutting almost half of the funding for international disaster assistance will cut many life-saving aid programs that focus on addressing the long term devastating effects of violence against women.
International advocates and government employees have made it very clear what a cut in foreign assistance funding would mean: women and girls around the world would die. To avoid the massive loss of life, the United States Congress has until December 8 to pass a budget for the new fiscal year that includes a sustained level of funding for foreign assistance. For decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have invested in girls’ education, health, economic opportunity, human rights, and political participation. Many members of Congress have said clearly that the 32% proposal to the foreign assistance budget is “dead on arrival” but that does not mean that the international community should be relieved. The budget proposals from both the Senate and the House of Representatives still include huge budget cuts, upwards of 11% in the Senate and 17% in the House, from within the current 60.5 billion USD.
This is a time for America to reflect on its history of being a model in foreign assistance. Two-thirds of Americans support funding foreign assistance and understand the amount of the total U.S. budget for foreign assistance is small yet means the difference between life or death for millions of girls globally. Now is the time for members of Congress to act on what their constituents already support and pass a budget that includes a sustained level of foreign assistance funding that will continue promoting the health, education, and aspirations of citizens around the world.
Savannah Fox is the Human Rights Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Regional Advocacy Coordinator at CARE International in the Advocacy and Policy Unit in Washington DC. Savannah earned her BA in International Relations and German from the University of South Carolina.