For USAID chief, the FY2014 budget is a matter of life and death

USAID chief Rajiv Shah testifies before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee
USAID chief Rajiv Shah testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

This week Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is on Capitol Hill to deliver testimony on the international development priorities of President Barack Obama’s proposed FY2014 budget.

The total amount that his agency, USAID, and the US State Department and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) combined spend annually on foreign assistance represents less than 1% of the U.S. federal budget. Yet as Dr. Shah testified, that small investment of U.S. taxpayer dollars advances our core values and national interests, while helping to save millions of lives worldwide.

Despite that, and a growing number of humanitarian disasters from Syria’s civil war to severe drought in Africa’s Sahel region, the already low, sequester-level spending of USAID is on the chopping block. The FY2014 budget recommended by the U.S. House would cut USAID’s current level of funding by 7%, and President Barack Obama’s proposed FY2014 budget would cut funding to USAID by 6%.

Fortunately thanks to Chairwoman Patty Murray of the Senate Budget Committee and a majority of her Senate colleagues, there is some cause for hope. Recognizing the importance of U.S. leadership in responding to urgent humanitarian disasters and development needs worldwide, the FY2014 budget resolution passed in the Senate recommends $45.6 billion for the U.S. international affairs budget – an increase of only 10% above the current sequester-level of spending.

To underscore the importance of even the most modest increase in U.S. foreign assistance, yesterday we posted Farah Rasool’s story, a moving reminder of the ongoing crisis facing 3 million Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homes. As political violence across Iraq continues to claim innocent lives, Iraqis remain one of the largest displaced populations in the Middle East, second only to Syrians fleeing internal violence.

Responding to the ongoing humanitarian needs of displaced and vulnerable Iraqis, while also doing more to respond to the urgent and growing needs of displaced Syrians, is a moral imperative of the United States and international community.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, USAID chief Shah spoke of the challenge that his agency faces today:

“We have to present a budget that conforms to an overall 6 percent reduction, which has forced a lot of difficult trade offs in a time when the actual number of humanitarian disasters around the world is doubling.”

Will that 6% reduction cost lives? Consider its impact on child health. In his opening testimony, Dr. Shah explained that, along with the international community, USAID helped reduce the number of children under the age of 5 dying around the world from 7.6 million to 6.9 million. Yet he also acknowledged that USAID has had to make some “tough decisions” to cut 22 country programs in global health in order to prioritize those countries where the burden of disease is greatest.

Dr. Shah has received accolades from the NGO community and from both Democrats and Republicans for his leadership in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of USAID, including a shift from food aid to cash aid. New York Times Opinionator Tina Rosenberg explains: “In many places, people go hungry because there is no food. But in a lot of places, food is available and the market is working — people are just too poor to buy it. In those places, giving individuals or charitable groups cash to buy food can make food aid cheaper, faster and fairer. By strengthening and not undercutting local farmers, cash aid also helps countries to avoid hunger later.

The success of such reforms is as important as ensuring that USAID is fully funding for FY2014. Directly relevant to EPIC’s mission, Dr. Shah mentioned Iraq three times, while also devoting considerable time to the Syria crisis and other challenges in the Middle East and North Africa.

Here are some selected excerpts from his prepared Senate testimony:

APRIL 24, 2013

(excerpt from page 1)

The President’s request enables USAID to strategically advance our national security priorities by implementing critical economic growth, democracy, human rights, and governance programs in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in support of the Administration’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance. It also focuses activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at an appropriate level to sustain the gains we have made in those countries over the last decade.

FOOD AID REFORM (excerpt from page 4)

Buying food locally can speed the arrival of aid by as many as 14 weeks—making up precious time when every day can mean the difference between life and death. It can also cost much less—as much as 50 percent less for cereals alone. In complex environments such as Syria and Somalia, which are increasingly the kind of crises where we need to provide assistance, these more flexible tools are invaluable.


Across the world, we are strengthening democracy, human rights, and governance, with a special emphasis on marginalized populations, including women and youth. Support for democratic and economic transitions enables the rise of capable new players who can help solve regional challenges and advance U.S. national security.

Since January 2011, the State Department and USAID have allocated more than $1.8 billion to support democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa and respond to emerging crisis needs in the region. The President’s Request of $580 million for the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund provides support to citizen demands for change, improves our ability to respond adroitly to new challenges and opportunities, and begins to address the imbalance between our security and economic assistance in the region.

The budget request supports our humanitarian assistance work around the globe in places where the need is greatest. This is particularly true in Syria, where at least 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and 2 million are displaced. To date, State and USAID have provided nearly $385 million in humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, USAID continues to work closely with interagency partners including the State and Defense departments, to move toward long-term stability, promote economic growth, and support democratic reforms, including the rights of women. Despite the challenges, we have seen a number of positive gains. For example, over the past decade in Afghanistan, we have increased access to education, resulting in dramatic increases in primary school enrollment from 900,000 boys in 2002 to 8 million students in 2012, 37 percent of whom are girls. In Iraq, USAID-funded legal clinics have supported over 1,700 legal cases on behalf of vulnerable individuals, including internally displaced persons and ethnic and religious minorities.

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Erik K. Gustafson

About Erik K. Gustafson

Erik is EPIC's founder and director. As a U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Erik has devoted his life to humanitarian action and empowering youth in support of Iraq's peace and development.