One of the most widely held misperceptions about the federal budget is the percentage of the budget that goes to foreign aid. According to a World Public Opinion poll, the average American believes that 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. When those same Americans are asked how much of the federal budget they think should go to foreign assistance they answer 10 percent.
So how much does the United States spend on foreign aid?
Right now the State and Foreign Operations portion of the budget is one percent of the total federal budget and that one percent does so much. First, it funds the State Department and its diplomatic functions – including embassies – around the world. It funds international organizations, including the World Food Programme, which is currently playing a key role in fighting the famine in the Horn of Africa. This one percent also includes U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs for agriculture, democracy, environment, economic development, and global health, including HIV/AIDS and family planning.
The Obama Administration has spent the last two years touting the three D’s: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense, saying that for a safe and secure world you need to invest in all three. As a result, the Obama Administration has been increasing the budget for State and foreign assistance. However in the current budgetary environment, each of the three D’s are in trouble, including diplomacy and development.
The cutting has already begun: the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriation for FY2011 was cut by $8 billion. Right now the FY2012 budget is under discussion, and the House State and Foreign Affairs Appropriations Sub-Committee cut funding for diplomacy and development to a level that’s 20 percent below the FY2010 funding level. While such a cut would have a dramatic impact on peoples’ lives around the world, it would have a profound impact on women’s lives.
International family planning would be slashed by 25 percent and support for the United Nations Population Fund would be eliminated. With world population reaching 7 billion later this year, and an estimated 215 million women wanting to avoid or delay a pregnancy, now is not the time to cut funding for family planning.
Unfortunately, this year’s appropriation battle isn’t the end of the story. Much bigger cuts could come as a result of the debt ceiling deal, which requires a super-committee in Congress to find between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next ten years from the budget by Thanksgiving. Right now, if the committee doesn’t act, $600 billion of the total amount will be cut from Defense. If Congress acts to avert those automatic cuts in the defense budget, the cuts come out of future appropriations for diplomacy and development.
If foreign assistance is cut, it will have a disproportionate impact on women. Unfortunately, there’s only one woman, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), on the 12 person committee that is charged with trying to put together the deficit-reduction package. So how will programs that affect women’s lives around the world fare with only one woman to advocate for them? What will this mean for family planning and reproductive health programs both in the United States and abroad? Only time will tell.
The budget for diplomacy and development is only one percent of the entire federal budget and even if it were cut completely you would not find enough money to solve the deficit problem. Unfortunately, foreign aid is an easy target. It is an area without a constituency. It is much easier for a member of Congress to cut money from foreign assistance than to cut programs that will directly affect voters in his or her own district. Yet, these cuts will have real impacts on the lives of men and women around the world, and, by implication, on U.S. interests abroad.
The super-committee has been given a big charge. It’s no small task to cut $1.2 to $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years from the federal budget, but the small investment that the U.S. makes in foreign assistance, including family planning, has paid big dividends. That’s why it’s called “smart diplomacy.” Let us hope that the super-committee understands that.
Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager