House budget proposal's deep cuts in humanitarian aid criticized

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011

U.S. officials and nonprofit groups are expressing alarm about the deep reductions in humanitarian assistance in the House budget bill, 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 bill, which would have to be reconciled with the House version. President Obama has said he would veto the House measure.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), head of the House subcommittee handling foreign aid, 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 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.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company