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Foreign aid under the ax in State Department budget proposal

Isra Chaker talks to passersby at the “Famine Food Truck” on May 22. It is part of an effort by Oxfam to draw attention to the impact of proposed cuts in the State Department budget. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The White House is proposing a State Department budget that would make deep cuts in long-term development aid, humanitarian food assistance and peacekeeping missions around the world.

The detailed budget unveiled Tuesday also proposes eliminating all funding for climate-change programs and for two prominent institutions in Washington, the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The only money earmarked for the two would be for closeout costs such as severance pay.

The Trump administration's proposed reductions include health programs that fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and polio. The plan would eliminate an emergency food aid program that purchases food from U.S. farmers. It would continue funding for NATO but cut contributions to U.N. peacekeeping by more than half, a $1.6 billion reduction.

State Department officials said that despite the cuts, the United States would remain a leading donor to humanitarian and health needs.

“The president’s budget provides strong support for foreign aid while reflecting the reality that resources are not unlimited,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The administration is asking for $25.6 billion for the core budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), plus $12 billion for overseas contingency operations. That is 32 percent below current spending, though 2017’s budget was inflated by supplementary spending beyond what was originally approved. It is still a sharp drop from 2016 spending.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the proposal reflects President Trump’s goal of a leaner, more efficient government that prioritizes national security and U.S. economic interests.

“As we advance the President’s foreign policy priorities, this budget will also help lay the foundation for a new era of global stability and American prosperity,” he said in a statement.

In one concrete example of the new approach, the White House would drop more than two dozen countries receiving economic and development assistance and direct the rest not to nations most in need but those deemed most critical to U.S. national security.

The plan would also cut in half the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which funds initiatives such as the Fulbright Program that sends hundreds of U.S. scholars to study abroad and brings their foreign counterparts to study in the United States. The bureau was originally slated for extinction, but the $285 million allocated is expected to be enough for the Fulbright if other exchange programs are eliminated.

The proposed cuts are expected to meet stiff resistance in Congress, where members have been lobbied for weeks by organizations in the field of foreign assistance.

“Thank goodness it’s Chapter 2 in a very long book,” said Peter Yeo, vice president for advocacy at the United Nations Foundation, which supports that agency’s work. “This is hardly the time to be cutting humanitarian assistance, when we’re dealing with four emerging famines and the Syrian refu­gee crisis. Congress is never going to go along with this type of stuff.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calls President Trump's budget "a comic book villain-bad budget." (Video: The Washington Post)

Groups involved in development programs and human rights criticized the foreign aid proposal as an abdication of the United States’ role in the world.

“If enacted, these cuts would result in the wholesale dismantling of America’s humanitarian and development work, increase suffering and make the world a more dangerous place,” said Michelle Nunn, president of Care USA, an anti-poverty group that gets 25 percent of its budget from the U.S. government.

On Monday, 225 business executives, including several from Fortune 500 companies, wrote a letter to Tillerson, saying development aid helps build markets for U.S. companies and creates jobs.

“We depend on the U.S. government being advocates for the rule of law, fighting corruption and strengthening government institutions,” said Laura Lane of UPS, the package-delivery company, which does business in 220 countries. “We can’t grow and prosper without it.”

Several organizations plan to flood Congress this week, asking members to reject the foreign aid cuts. Care USA has lined up 350 attendees of its national conference in Washington to lobby on Capitol Hill. Oxfam America is sending a “Famine Food Truck” around the District, featuring a giant photo of a gaunt woman and child in Somaliland, to draw attention to famines in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and the Chad Basin.

“The level of need is greater now than perhaps ever before,” said Paul O’Brien, vice president of policy at Oxfam America, citing famines caused by population growth, climate change and war. “The United States needs to demonstrate leadership in the fight against suffering.”

With months to go before Congress determines appropriations, few organizations have a Plan B beyond trying to protect current funding levels.

“Plan A is to fight the cuts,” said Tom Hart, head of the One Campaign, which fights poverty and disease, primarily in Africa. “We have a receptive audience on both sides of the aisle who don’t support the cuts President Trump is proposing. That’s where we’re pouring our efforts. We’re trying to push back against the notion ‘America First’ means we can’t support those in need abroad.”