JOHANNESBURG - As the U.S. government proposes severe cuts in foreign aid, Africa and its neighbors are experiencing a massive hunger crisis, with 20 million people facing possible starvation in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen.
Aid officials say the proposed cuts would have a deep and disastrous impact in those countries and others. The United States is the largest single donor to the United Nations’ World Food Program, contributing just over $2 billion last year.
In dire times like these, says WFP East Africa spokeswoman Challiss McDonough, the aid agency needs more help than ever.
Famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan, and in one remote village of 20,000 people, McDonough says, WFP’s meager food drops -- consisting of a bit of sorghum, a handful of split peas and a few spoonfuls of vegetable oil -- serve as a lifeline.
“Without those airdrops, if we weren’t able to keep those planes flying and to keep the food moving, to keep the helicopters flying, then people would literally have nothing," she told VOA from Nairobi, Kenya. "The only thing that is standing between them and catastrophe is the food assistance that we can bring to them.”
That word -- catastrophe -- has come up often in global reactions to the proposed U.S. budget, which seeks a nearly 30 percent reduction in international programs, like the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In a statement, the president and CEO of aid agency Save the Children, Carolyn Miles, said, "These cuts will be catastrophic for millions of families in developing countries,” adding that U.S. aid has had a massive global impact in the last two decades, reducing childhood deaths by more than 50 percent.
Ben Parker, a London-based editor and analyst with IRIN, a news agency specializing in humanitarian issues, says the international aid community is readying itself for a “shock” over the loss of aid.
“It’s going to hurt,” he said, “and it’s going to have consequences we’re not even sure about at this point when you look at the scale of the cuts, potentially, particularly to the U.N., which the administration has a particular lack of appetite for.”
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Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the proposal will “absolutely” reduce funding to the U.N. -- to which the U.S. is the largest single donor.
Parker, however, says the U.S. has to respect certain financial obligations to the U.N. if it wants to retain its powerful vote on the Security Council.
“[W]hen you’re a member of international organizations, you have various types of funding obligations which you can’t get out of easily,” he said. “And these in the U.N. cover things like the core budget and also the peacekeeping operations... And it can’t just not pay -- or if it does not pay, if it is a deadbeat -- it may then lose its right to vote in the organization."
Unfortunately, he adds, it appears the easier cuts would be to things like emergency relief.
The proposed cuts don’t just affect the poorest of the poor. The U.S. government considers South Africa an upper middle income country, but its international development agency contributed about $256 million to local aid groups last year.
Twenty-four million dollars of that went to Right to Care, a health care organization that works on HIV prevention, treatment and other support.
CEO Ian Sanne says his organization needs every penny of that money -- South Africa has the world’s highest prevalence of AIDS and the world’s largest HIV treatment program.
Still, his biggest concern about the proposed U.S. budget isn’t President Donald Trump's plan to cut international aid. It's the plan to cut nearly 20 percent of funding to one of the world’s leaders in disease research, the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
“It’s not clear which disease areas the funding will be cut to, but certainly in HIV-tuberculosis, the current agenda of research would be significantly impeded by such a substantive reduction in funding,” he told VOA from Johannesburg. “The TB drug development arena is almost entirely dependent on the funding from the NIH, and an interruption in funding would lead to a potential expanse of the TB epidemic -- and particularly drug-resistant TB epidemic -- worldwide.”