Stopgap Spending Hampers U.S., UN Humanitarian Efforts

Jan 04, 2018

With Congress contemplating yet another stopgap spending measure, the Pentagon can be expected to renew warnings about the the security dangers that come with the government operating on autopilot for so many months.

But continuing resolutions also harm the U.S. government’s extensive humanitarian efforts around the world, causing ripple effects across private and  and international organizations such as the World Food Programme, the United Nation's main relief organization. U.S. funding gaps can cause such organizations to slow, scale back and even end efforts to provide food, medicine, and shelter to the world’s neediest people. 

“In the humanitarian side, it really is a huge problem,” Gayle Smith, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development in the final year of the Obama administration, told CQ. “Each individual CR kind of jerks the system around enough that it is destabilizing. But the fact that it is a pattern, I think it’s costly.”

The federal government is currently on its third CR since the end of fiscal 2017 and the expectation is there will be at least one more before Congress is able to reach a bipartisan omnibus spending deal for fiscal 2018. Assuming a deal is reached in February, the State Department and USAID will have been operating under month-to-month and week-to-week CRs for four months, at a time of enormous humanitarian need.

“It is a lousy way to run the government,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who leads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for foreign aid, shortly before the Christmas break. “It has planning downsides, programming funds downsides."

Last May, Congress approved $6.9 billion in humanitarian assistance for fiscal 2017, a 17 percent or $1 billion increase over fiscal 2016 levels. Additionally, Congress approved a separate $990 million specifically designated for famine relief. But all of that generosity has fallen short of the global need.


While there is no comprehensive overview of the effect of CRs on humanitarian and development efforts, InterAction, a U.S.-based coalition of foreign aid organizations, said it has been hearing anecdotes from member groups that paint a worrisome picture.

“We have a number of members reporting that agreements with USAID that might have been three years have been scaled down to one year or funding has been reduced,” said Alicia Philips Mandaville, vice president for global development policy at InterAction. “It’s not all one region or all one particular type of programming but basically people are starting to see less certainty around things that they already thought had been secured programmatically.”

Over the medium-term, the expectation is that delayed U.S. funding could lead to deaths around the world, but it is difficult to predict exact numbers, Mandaville said. “We know things are going to happen badly but no one believes us until they happen.”

Alicia Phillips Mandaville is the vice president for global development policy and learning.

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