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US State Department Braces for Steep Budget Cuts Slashing Foreign Aid

  • Cindy Saine

The White House has released its budget blueprint Thursday, with President Donald Trump on record that he intends to boost military spending at the expense of the State Department, foreign aid and U.S. contributions to international organizations like the United Nations.

Foreign service officers and other staff members at the State Department and at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world are bracing for massive cuts.

George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on global development, told VOA the cuts may be phased in gradually.

"What I've heard is the cuts are likely to be in the nature of 30 percent, that the original OMB [Office of Management and Budget] proposed cut was 37 percent and that the secretary pushed back and said: 'Don't do 37 percent in the first year. Phase it in over three years,' and that what we're likely to see is a budget cut in the range of 30 percent," Ingram said.

30% cut would 'gut' programs

Ingram said cuts of 30 percent or more would undercut America's role as a world leader on development and foreign policy issues, and gut crucial programs.

FILE - The AIDS Care Training and Support Initiative at White River Junction, South Africa, is partly funded by the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to help support facilities for care, training and testing.

FILE - The AIDS Care Training and Support Initiative at White River Junction, South Africa, is partly funded by the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to help support facilities for care, training and testing.

"It would defund and take money away from programs like PEPFAR, the HIV/AIDS program, which last year kept 11.5 million people alive," he said. "We're talking about programs that save lives, that keep people from famine, from disease."

Cuts of that magnitude would also target "programs like business support, water, fresh water, sanitation and education," Ingram continued, "that are the foundation for helping countries move from poverty to economic development and beyond. Programs that help stabilize and promote stability in those countries."

Human rights and humanitarian aid groups said massive cuts in U.S. foreign aid would be devastating for refugees and other vulnerable people around the world.

Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International USA told VOA people worldwide are alarmed.

'Would shrink US role in world'

"Civil society organizations, governments, I think, are all extremely concerned about not only the withdrawal of resources or the cutting of resources, but I think they are also concerned about the vacuum left by the absence of the United States as a partner, as a generator of innovation, of creativity and also, of course, as a voice on human rights," Akwei said.

He pointed out what a small percentage of the U.S. budget currently goes toward foreign aid.

"You may be aware that the budget is — the foreign assistance budget — is less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget itself," Akwei said. "So it's miniscule. And yet here is a little investment that goes a long way, that is doing critical work in different parts of the world, and it's under threat."

Some analysts disagree, saying the State Department is a bloated bureaucracy that could be made more efficient through budget cuts.

FILE - United Nations peacekeepers patrol in the camp for displaced people inside the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Malakal, Upper Nile State, March 4, 2014.

FILE - United Nations peacekeepers patrol in the camp for displaced people inside the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Malakal, Upper Nile State, March 4, 2014.

"I think there's plenty of room to reorganize, to make the State Department really a better, more efficient, more effective player as a representative of the American people," former diplomat James Robert, now a fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, told VOA. He said a leaner State Department would be "a player overseas because it's going to have simplified lines of authority and where money will be spent."

Will Congress oppose cuts?

The Brookings Institution's Ingram has worked as a senior staff member on Capitol Hill. He said he does not think Congress will go along with such dramatic cuts to the State Department and foreign aid.

"What we've seen in the last month is a bipartisan outcry from members of the House and the Senate that a drastic cut to the international affairs account is unacceptable. So I think you're going to see some real push-back by the Congress this year," he added.

Ingram said he expects that, in the end, international affairs spending will be cut, but not as deeply as suggested.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has spoken out against suggestions that the State Department will face deep budget cuts.

Fight to defeat IS at risk

Graham said the global fight to defeat the Islamic State group would suffer if there are drastic cuts to U.S. diplomacy.

In a tweet, Graham said, "Any legislation we pass that guts [the State Department] budget, we will never win this war [against extremists]. In fact, ISIS will be celebrating." ISIS is another acronym for the militant group.

Trump's budget also is expected to call for $10 billion to $20 billion to build a wall along the southern U.S.-Mexico border. The full spending plan likely will be the focus of fierce debate on Capitol Hill in the months to come.

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