Humanitarian Groups Look to Save Funds

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:17pm

Facing unexpected funding cuts, lobbyists for humanitarian groups are launching an initiative to urge lawmakers to restore money for aid projects in Africa.

The lobbying effort is in response to Senate appropriators’ move to cut the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s funding for the second time this summer.

The MCC is a Bush administration initiative begun in 2004 to work with the poorest countries in the world to reduce poverty through economic growth programs. Since 2004, MCC has signed compacts with countries totaling more than $5 billion.

The latest challenge to the program came July 17 when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $254 million fiscal year 2009 appropriation for the program — nearly $1.3 billion less than the MCC’s request. If ultimately enacted, supporters of the program say the funding cuts would prevent the organization from entering any new agreements with countries.

“The report language in the bill basically calls for the [Millennium Challenge Account] to take a pause in new contracts,” said Nora O’Connell, vice president of policy and government affairs at Women Thrive Worldwide. “These countries have already started taking steps [to be eligible for an MCA compact]. This is sending the message that the U.S. is stopping funding for countries that are already eligible.”

O’Connell, co-chair of the MCA working group InterAction, a coalition of more than 150 humanitarian groups, sent a letter last week listing their concerns. “Such an interruption would have a stark, chilling effect on the efforts of countries working hard to qualify for MCA funding, sending the wrong message about the reliability of the U.S. as a partner for development,” the group wrote.

Lobbyists for the groups plan to meet with staffers of relevant committees during recess.

“We are not happy with what Congress has been doing,” said Jim McDonald, vice president for policy and programs at Bread for the World. “There is money in the budget. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is really counterproductive.”

This latest effort comes after a series of lobbying pushes by the coalition. Earlier this year, the MCC faced a serious cut in the supplemental appropriations bill. Several of the humanitarian organizations met with lawmakers in June to call on the House to restore nearly $525 million in the supplemental that the Senate had cut from the MCC. The Senate had argued that the money was needed for other foreign assistance programs for countries like Jordan and Burma.

Aid groups were successful in getting the money restored in the supplemental.

“What’s clear … is that there’s a broad- based constituency in Washington and also around the country for foreign aid reform and poverty reduction, and these are voices that are making themselves known,” said James Mazzarella, MCC managing director of Congressional and public affairs.

Still, the MCC may need all the help it can get if the Senate’s current plan continues.

“It’s a pretty strong cutback and, if actually enacted into law, would mean the Millennium Challenge Account only has the funding to keep the doors open in 2009 rather than make further progress,” said Tom Hart, a lobbyist for Debt AIDS Trade Africa, a group co-founded by U2’s Bono and the ONE Campaign. “We hope that will not be the final word. It is the first word from the Senate.”

While Congress is expected to pass a continuing resolution covering programs into next year, the final outcome for MCC’s funding is still unknown. Some lobbyists believe Senators were lowballing MCC funding as a political tactic against President Bush after he refused to fund some of their initiatives.

While the Senate Appropriations Committee has said it supports MCC, the committee wants to use the money for other aid projects, citing MCC’s slow progress in doling out already-appropriated money and the need to evaluate MCC’s programs.

“Things tend to look a bit different when you’re responsible for actually balancing the committee’s budget ledger,” Leahy spokesman David Carle said. “The committee has provided sufficient funds to cover the MCC’s other costs so it can support ongoing programs and plan for future compacts.”

And with the Bush administration coming to a close, some say the MCC could face more challenges getting funding.

“I’ve taken the position, if the Democrats take over they should own this one,” said Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services. “It’s a really good legacy.”

Hackett, a MCC board member, says the committee’s actions make countries nervous. For example, the president of the Philippines and members of her cabinet came to Washington last month to lay out their plan for trying to become eligible for funding.

“They are worried,” Hackett said. “The changes in policy in some governments are substantive adjustments in the way countries act that are going to have a long-term impact on poverty.”