For 16 days, Stephen O’Brien, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs of the United Nations, traveled from one afflicted country to another, talking to people who were traumatized. Starving. Desperate for peace.
Many had been displaced, the victims of airstrikes and constant fighting, of drought and imminent famine.
By the time O’Brien returned to the United Nations, the humanitarian chief had committed several statistics to heart, each one illustrating a deep gash the agency needed to address in its efforts around the world.
In Yemen, he said, more than 7 million people are hungry and do not know when they will eat again. That represented a staggering increase of more than 3 million people since January.
In South Sudan, more than 7.5 million needed assistance, including 1 million malnourished children.
In Somalia, 6.2 million were in need of aid.
And in northern Kenya, the number of people who were “food insecure” was likely to reach 4 million by April.
In all, more than 20 million people in those four countries faced starvation and famine, O’Brien said in a lengthy address to the U.N. Security Council on Friday.
O’Brien's grim report came as President Trump proposed slashing U.S. spending on the United Nations by more than half, as reported by Foreign Policy.
“We’re absolutely reducing funding to the U.N. and to various foreign aid programs,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said during a news conference Thursday, according to Fox News. When asked by how much, he replied simply: “A lot.”
The United Nations warned against the proposed cuts Thursday. “Abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’s spokesman said in a statement.
French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the cuts could result in instability worldwide.
“America’s retreat and unilateralism, or even the perception of it by other players, would create the risk of coming back to the old spheres of influence policy, and history teaches us that it has only led to more instability,” Delattre told Reuters.
O’Brien, days before the proposed budget cuts, elaborated on the consequences that would follow without action.
“Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death,” O’Brien said. “Many more will suffer and die from disease. Children stunted and out of school. Livelihoods, futures and hope will be lost. Communities’ resilience rapidly wilting away. Development gains reversed. Many will be displaced and will continue to move in search for survival, creating ever more instability across entire regions.”
Last year, the United States spent nearly $9 billion on the United Nations, a figure that is broken down into “assessed” and “voluntary” contributions. The former goes toward the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget, while the latter encompasses the agency’s humanitarian efforts.
According to the U.N. Foundation, that $9 billion makes up only about 0.1 percent of the total U.S. federal budget — but it makes the United States by far the largest contributor to both the U.N.’s peacekeeping and humanitarian budgets, at shares of 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively. Most of the contributions come from the State Department budget.
What makes this year’s proposed cuts so unusual is how much they would affect all parts of the agency’s efforts.
“From what's being described to us, these are far-reaching cuts in both assessed and voluntary contributions,” Peter Yeo, vice president for the U.N. Foundation, told The Washington Post. If the United States is forced back into arrears because it stops paying its dues, essentially, then it could lose its vote in the general assembly after two years, he added.
“But the real consequence is we lose our credibility with the United Nations when we don’t pay our dues,” he said. “If you want multilateral pressure, including sanctions on rogue regimes, you've got to have strong American leadership in the Security Council. ... Why would other countries do what we want if we aren’t paying our dues? They won’t.”
That, he said, is the security consequence. On the humanitarian side, the effects of the United States withdrawing its funding are likely to be irrevocable — and also, in the end, an American national security issue. More often than not, meeting people’s economic and health needs can reduce their drive to join radical terrorist organizations.
“Other donor countries might follow suit and that will lead to enormous humanitarian consequences,” Yeo said. “If President Trump is focused on American national security and stopping terrorists before they come to the U.S., the U.N. is a crucial player in making that equation work.”
The cuts “will fundamentally undermine American national security,” Yeo said. “These types of proposed cuts will increase the likelihood that tens of thousands of people will starve to death. That’s not in American interests.”
As The Post's Karen DeYoung reported Tuesday, it is not uncommon for presidential administrations, particularly Republican ones, to threaten to decrease or withhold U.N. payments.
“But the Trump administration appears more serious than most in its threats to make deeper and more permanent cuts in payments that would significantly affect U.N. operations,” DeYoung reported. “At the same time, it has warned that it may withdraw altogether from U.N. agencies it considers particularly counterproductive.”
Trump has spoken dismissively of the United Nations in the past, including during his transition, when he likened it to a social club.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations appointed by Trump, said in a statement on Thursday that “in many areas, the U.N. spends more money than it should," according to the New York Times.
Months before, during her January confirmation hearing, Haley said she did not believe in “slash-and-burn” cuts to U.N. funding.
Meanwhile, Guterres said in late February that the agency had requested $4.4 billion by March to “avert a catastrophe,” The Post's Kevin Sieff reported. However, it had only received a fraction of that amount.
In his plea last week, O’Brien, the U.N. humanitarian chief, stressed that the situation across Africa and in the Middle East was dire. However, it was possible to end further suffering — but only with an international response.
“It’s a horrible amalgamation of crises that is causing the greatest humanitarian challenge since the inception of the U.N. 71 years ago,” Yeo said. “At the same time, we have the most challenged relationship between the U.S. and the U.N. So the timing is not good here.”