Confronting New Realities in Washington: InterAction Foreign Assistance Briefing Book

Originally posted on the ALNAP Blog.

InterAction, the alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations involved in international relief and development, prepares its Foreign Assistance Briefing Book (aka the FABB) biannually to coincide with the January arrival of a new Congress. The second version was released last month into a radically different environment than the first. The potential for transformation represented by a newly elected President Obama backed by clear Democratic majorities of both houses of Congress has vanished in favor of houses preoccupied with reducing government spending, with the Republican leadership vowing to return all discretionary spending to 2008 levels at best and to abolish the U.S. Agency for International Development at worst. The FABB tries to take the high road and largely ignores this political transformation. To the extent that we at InterAction bowed to the new environment, the clues lie in arguments for aid based on national interest and security rather than moral imperatives. But especially when it comes to humanitarian action, we have historically found bi-partisan support for life-saving assistance, and the hope is that a moderate consensus will develop around maintaining significant levels of U.S. support for emergency assistance to vulnerable people affected by conflict and natural disasters. The Obama administration has maintained, and in some cases even strengthened, policies designed to counter terrorism against the U.S. and build greater global popular support for the U.S. through “hearts and minds” strategies of which aid provision is a fundamental component. The common thread of InterAction’s country specific policy recommendations—from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Somalia and Sudan—is the imperative of providing emergency assistance based on need, and avoiding the politicization of humanitarian programs. Similarly, we re-affirm the substance of hard-won agreements with the U.S. military, so difficult to adhere to in practice, to respect the need for independent action of the humanitarian sector and avoid attempting to pose as humanitarian actors for strategic gain. Finally, we recommend important reforms in U.S. humanitarian policies, urging explicit executive and legislative endorsement of the life-saving imperative; adherence to global human rights norms and protection standards; designation of a civilian humanitarian response lead agency; and increased U.S. engagement with and leadership on the UN humanitarian reform process. The American NGO community was feeling embattled even before the November elections. The relentless pressure of counter-terror policies, coupled with public skepticism as to NGO impact in the light of the Haiti response, had us on the defensive. In this context, the FABB is an attempt to push back, re-affirming the value of our collective action and the standards and principles that we seek to adhere to. In the face of actual and potential severe national budget cuts in a number of donor nations, what are the best arguments for maintaining and increasing the funds devoted to humanitarian response? How have U.S. and other counter-terror measures impacted your humanitarian work? What more can NGOs be doing to re-affirm the primacy of humanitarian principles in the face of these restrictions?