Up Front

Erratic budget processes threaten US foreign aid

Most policymakers understand that foreign assistance is a key instrument of U.S. foreign policy, but they also need to recognize that disruptions to the supply chain—rescission, proposed cuts, and erratic budgeting—undermine America’s ability to deliver vital assistance. This has implications for food, medicine, or education assistance in developing countries. Indeed, funding delays and the threat of budget cuts undermine our government’s support for programs aimed at creating economic growth, reducing poverty, and promoting stability.

Foreign aid is not like a water reservoir ready to flow with a turn of the tap. Rather, it is like a business or a sports team, requiring planning and strategies, hiring and developing the right staff skills, soliciting grants and contracts, designing partnerships, providing management and oversight, monitoring and evaluation, feedback, and learning.  All of this involves not just the staff of the aid agency, but of implementing organizations, donor partners, and host governments.

When the Office of Management and Budget threatens to rescind 20 percent of the aid budget, or the president proposes a 30 percent cut in funding (even if dead on arrival), or Congress fails to enact the appropriations bill on time, it reverberates down the line.  It hinders the effectiveness of the work of tens of thousands of aid workers and affects the livelihoods of tens of millions of intended beneficiaries. Moreover, it wastes U.S. taxpayers’ money.

These budget abnormalities are the new normal for diplomacy and development.  By contrast, spending for defense is far more reliable, with annual authorization and appropriations bills and increased funding from one year to the next.

Giving short shrift to U.S. foreign assistance hurts our effectiveness at the country level, as evidenced in a new four-country study by Publish What You Fund that looks at the likely impact of U.S. foreign assistance cuts proposed in the FY19 budget in Cambodia, Liberia, Nicaragua, and Senegal.

Widespread damage from a dysfunctional budget process

The disjointed budget process is damaging the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance in multiple ways:

Waste of time

Delays compound inefficiencies

Setbacks to projects and programs

Reputational damage

How can the U.S. be credible when it conveys mixed signals and cannot live up to the sound budgeting principles it preaches to others? Rescissions, proposed budget cuts, and delayed appropriations sully the reputation of the United States, undermine the effectiveness of U.S. assistance, hinder our intended objectives, and constitute a disservice to our aid workers and to country partners. Policymakers need to recognize these ramifications and return the aid budget to regular order.