Why foreign aid should not end up a casualty of the Congressional budget battles

As an anti-hunger advocate, I am holding my breath. I am hopeful about the global change that President Obama could make in his second term, especially when it comes to reducing poverty, but I worry Congress might toss the hungry off the fiscal cliff.

During President Obama’s inaugural address four years ago, he pledged to work with the people of poor nations to reduce hunger. He also suggested that a nation like ours can no longer “consume the world's resources without regard to effect” on the world. Not only was President Obama spot-on at that time, he continues to be on the right path by keeping his word throughout the last four years.

It’s no secret that when Obama took office, he inherited a political and economic storm, but it is important to remember that he also took office at the start of a world food crisis, which led to rioting in 30 countries and pushed 100 million additional people into poverty in 2009.

At the time, President Obama and the United States responded by pledging $3.5 billion over three years to help farmers grow more food to better feed their families and pull themselves out of poverty.

I saw, firsthand, the impact that this pledge is having on real people’s lives during a trip to Rwanda last spring. Rwanda is known as “the land of a thousand hills” which makes for beautiful scenery but also makes it very difficult to farm. With resources provided through the US supported Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), Rwandan farmers have carved flat terraces into the sides of the steep hills on which they live in an effort to improve the farm productivity and create a pathway out of poverty. It worked.

For instance, Esther, a woman farmer who I met in Rwanda, went from barely being able to feed her family to harvesting 5 tons of potatoes in one year. She was able to sell her surplus on the local market, build a new house and use the extra money to send her children to school. And this was no small feat. Women, like Esther, make up the majority of the world’s smallholder farmers. U.S. agricultural development programs are rightly targeting these women who often hold the key to household food security.

At the same time, the life-saving strategies for people like Esther cost the American public not 50, 25, 10, or even 5 percent of the total federal budget. These programs, which we classify as foreign aid, compose less than 1 percent of the entire budget. This progress is a clear example of why the President must work with Congress to ensure that U.S. foreign aid programs do not end up as casualties of the upcoming budget battle. Foreign aid is a smart investment which, for a small amount of money, is making a real difference in the lives of the people who need it the most.

Instead, we should be looking for areas to cut the budget in places that undermine food security. The expiration last year of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, a subsidy that incentivized turning our food crops into fuel, was a $6 billion good start. ActionAid, based on research from Tufts University, estimated that corn ethanol placed a $6.6 billion burden on developing countries over a six year period. Continuing to get rid of subsidies and mandates for corn ethanol will both strengthen food security in those nations and will help alleviate some pressure on our fiscal budget as well.

Throughout history, American presidents, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have upheld our moral obligation to help those in need, no matter where they live, regardless of tough fiscal times.  President Obama’s efforts have become some of the most successful to end global hunger, and with rising food prices globally, now is not the time to give up. Cutting foreign aid is not penny wise, but it is pound foolish.

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you: to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow,” were President Obama’s direct words four years ago during his first inaugural address. Dear President, please keep that pledge today. Please work with Congress to ensure that the U.S. can continue to work alongside farmers like Esther to see that their farms flourish and their futures are bright.

By Kate Campbell, senior policy analyst, ActionAid U.S. This article was originally published January 18 by The Hill, and is also included in InterAction's series of guest opinions by NGO leaders on ways to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective.