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House budget bill's deep cuts in humanitarian aid criticized

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 10:44 PM

U.S. officials and nonprofit groups are expressing alarm about the deep reductions in humanitarian assistance in the House budget bill racing through Congress, warning that it could leave millions of poor people hungry and put refugees in jeopardy in places such as Iraq and Pakistan.

The bill, which would mandate cuts in the fiscal 2011 discretionary budget, was drawn up by House Republicans and represents about a 6 percent cut in funding overall from 2010 federal budget levels. But money for international food aid programs would be reduced by up to 50 percent. The State Department's funding for refugees would shrink by more than 40 percent.

"It represents an American policy retreat of historic proportions, with unprecedented and really devastating effects on our leadership in saving lives and preventing conflict," said Eric P. Schwartz, the assistant secretary of state in charge of refugees and migration.

The Democratic-dominated Senate is likely to pass a less-stringent version of the legislation, which will have to be reconciled with the House version. President Obama has threatened to veto the House bill if it reaches his desk.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), head of the House subcommittee handling foreign aid, acknowledged that the cuts are deep. But she said that, to preserve funding considered critical to national security - such as military assistance for Israel and Egypt - other aspects of foreign assistance must be reduced.

"This financial crisis in this country, that's what caused us to say we have to quit spending at that level," she said.

The House bill would slash the budget for one of the main U.S. foreign food aid programs, Food for Peace, by 40 percent from 2010 levels. That would reduce or eliminate food for about 15 million people in places such as Ethiopia, Haiti and Sudan, U.S. officials say.

The cuts would come at a time when millions of people are sinking into poverty because of rising food prices globally, according to the World Bank.

The budget for another initiative, the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, which provides meals to about 4.5 million schoolchildren in poor countries, would be halved.

"A lot of these kids would not be in school if there was no meal," said Rick Leach, president of the World Food Program USA.

Republicans have noted that some of the programs targeted for cuts have grown rapidly in recent years. The State Department refugee bureau, for example, saw its base budget rise from about $1 billion in 2008 to almost $1.7 billion two years later. The House bill would roll back the allocation to the 2008 figure.

But State Department officials say that the true budget figure in 2008 was about $1.3 billion because of funding in a supplemental spending bill.

They say their budget has increased because of the high number of refugees worldwide, a result of crises in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and other countries. About 1 million people were forced from their homes in Pakistan alone last year, because of fighting between the military and Islamic extremists.

U.S. refugee programs in Africa, Burma, Iraq and elsewhere "would be decimated" under the proposed budget, Schwartz said.

The House bill would cut funding to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the main international U.S. program that treats and combats HIV-AIDS abroad, by about 8 percent. The U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis would shrink by more than 40 percent.

Also affected would be the International Disaster Assistance Fund, which would be pared back by 67 percent.

"The problem is, if another disaster happens, a Haiti [earthquake] or a tsunami, we might not be able to respond," said Robert Zachritz of World Vision, a humanitarian aid group.

Nonprofit groups point out that foreign aid is less than 1 percent of the budget.

"We know that the U.S. government is going to have to do more with less. The point we're making is, cuts to this part of the budget have an incredibly big impact on people who can least afford it," said Tom Hart, director of government relations at ONE, an anti-poverty group. "There are very few places in the federal budget where funding translates into lives saved. And this is one of them."

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