Obama’s 2017 Budget: Missed Opportunities for Global Development

February 29, 2016
Syrian refugees resting on the floor at the Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

By Taylor Amos

Earlier this month, President Obama released the final budget request of his presidency, for fiscal year 2017.

The $4.1 trillion budget includes ambitious plans to tackle key issues such as climate change, child nutrition, and criminal justice reform. There are strong provisions for some important international efforts, such as $500 million for the Green Climate Fund and greater flexibility to purchase emergency food aid locally and regionally.  

Yet despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, food shortages in South Sudan and Ethiopia, and other emergencies, the president’s funding request does not live up to what many thought would be his boldest international affairs budget to date.

The troubling trend of relying more and more heavily on temporary funding sources continues in the request. It includes a total of $54.1 billion for international affairs, of which $39.3 billion is for base funding and $14.9 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding.

OCO was established to fund the global war on terror and will eventually be phased out. Yet OCO funding has grown from 9 percent of international affairs funding in fiscal year 2010 to 28 percent in the new budget request. The base funding, on the other hand, is $430 million less than the 2016 base funding and at its lowest level since 2008.

Increasing dependence on a funding source that will be available only temporarily threatens the Poverty-Focused Development Assistance (PFDA) programs that Bread for the World supports. PFDA funding supports development efforts such as global agriculture, health, and education, along with emergency humanitarian assistance. The proposed cuts in this year’s international affairs budget include several PFDA programs.

The request for maternal/child nutrition was $108 million – down 13 percent from fiscal year 2016. Yet U.S. leadership and funding deserves part of the credit for the world’s significant progress against child mortality over the past two decades. The number of deaths among children younger than 5 has been cut nearly in half, even with increases in the global population -- from 12.6 million deaths in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012. And the U.S. government has committed to saving 15 million children’s lives and 600,000 women’s lives by 2020 through global health programs. Investments in nutrition are a cost-effective way to ensure that children everywhere have a chance to survive and thrive. 

The largest and most shocking proposed cut is to International Disaster Assistance. The request is for $1.9 billion, a 30 percent decrease from fiscal year 2016. Food for Peace Title II, a food aid program for people affected by disasters, has a proposed 21 percent cut. Last year, Food for Peace received $1.7 billion. And after several years of level funding, a cut of 9 percent to Migration and Refugee Assistance is also in the request.

Yet this is the year of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 60 million people displaced from their homes. The world continues to face overwhelming humanitarian emergency needs due to conflict and natural disaster -- in Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and the list goes on. Without adequate funding, efforts to save lives and enable people to return home will simply fall short.

Contrary to what we often hear in the media, the United States actually spends very little of its money on international affairs accounts such as these – well under 1 percent of the federal budget. And this money saves millions of lives. Deep cuts to small budgets will make these programs far less effective at their critical task of enabling people to get back on their feet and build more stable, prosperous futures. Now is not the time to cut such programs. Now is the time to ramp up our commitment so we can see a world free of poverty and hunger by 2030.   

Taylor Amos is the Art Simon Fellow in the Government Relations Department at Bread for the World.

Without adequate funding, efforts to save lives and enable people to return home will simply fall short.

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