We’re seeing the effects of budget instability on the ground

In a recent column in The Hill, I reflected on the disappointing turn that I witnessed as my organization, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), learned that our project meant to help feed and train people emerging from the Ebola crisis, had been terminated early.

The program in Sierra Leone, funded by the U.S. government, was in line with Congressional and administrative priorities and was fulfilling program expectations. Sierra Leone is desperately poor and in need of improved agricultural yields and better markets for products, which was precisely one of the goals of the project we were implementing. And it was working. We found that farmers in 3,000 households stopped using practices that deplete soil. Many saw their crop yields improve dramatically in a short time.

But then, after a mere 10 months, the U.S. government abruptly pulled the plug on the project. About 30,000 needy people in Sierra Leone who had begun to receive nutrition and agricultural assistance were suddenly cut off. What’s more, companies that had begun investing in the region pulled out. The cause: the tortuous federal budgeting process of the past few years.

Our stories are not unique. The administration has consistently proposed 30% cuts in foreign aid budgets, threatened potentially unlawful last-minute rescissions, and has cut or terminated funding due to non-transparent reviews. This has created an erratic process with harmful effects. In order to support the effectiveness of U.S. programs abroad, funding decisions should be guided by rigorous consideration of evidence and performance, the role of U.S. leadership, and level of need.

Catholic Relief Services investigated the impact of federal budget delays and uncertainty on our work. Our findings show multiple projects were significantly harmed, including those that help children affected by HIV and AIDS, orphans, and other vulnerable people. As part of our review, we took an even closer look at the impacts of the cuts to the Sierra Leone project.

As a result of our research, CRS is calling for a U.S. Government Accountability Office meta-analysis on the impacts of budget uncertainty as well as cuts and delays on all foreign aid programs. We are also urging more realistic budget proposals by the administration, and a return to order in the appropriations process in Congress.

In conjunction, MFAN has called for maintaining a neutral, empirical, and non-politicized treatment of U.S. development and humanitarian aid. Focusing on long-term results will maximize the effectiveness of our aid efforts. The coalition recommends humanitarian exceptions to unplanned cuts or conditions. MFAN supports provisions that protect congressionally appropriated aid funds from rescissions, as well as a congressionally mandated U.S. Government Accountability Office assessment of any Foreign Aid Review.

The farmers and citizens of Sierra Leone who were suddenly cut off from life-changing programs became victims of a chaotic and erratic budget process in Washington. MFAN and CRS advocate for addressing these issues and maintaining a track record of effective U.S. foreign assistance.

Catholic Relief Services’ full investigation can be read here, and the case study of Sierra Leone here.

Bill O’Keefe is Executive Vice President, Mission, Mobilization, and Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services & MFAN Executive Committee Member


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