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Support grows for foreign aid in upcoming COVID-19 emergency bill

Republicans and Democrats want as much as $12 billion for foreign assistance in next coronavirus relief bill

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has worked with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. to urge the Senate to add foreign aid to next COVID-19 relief bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has worked with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. to urge the Senate to add foreign aid to next COVID-19 relief bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House and the Senate are poised to begin serious negotiations for another emergency coronavirus spending bill — perhaps the last one that gets passed before the November elections. And this one just might include billions of dollars to help other countries cope with the pandemic. 

Foreign aid advocates — frustrated at the relative absence of international assistance in previous supplemental coronavirus spending measures — are mounting a full-force effort to ensure this next emergency appropriations bill includes billions of dollars for international vaccine efforts and humanitarian support to cope with the nutrition, health and social welfare consequences of the global pandemic.

The effort includes top United Nations officials and dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who have been speaking out and signing bipartisan letters to Senate and House leadership calling for them to support significant foreign aid levels in the upcoming bill.

Organized by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., 32 senators, including 14 Republicans, signed a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week urging him to include “robust, coordinated, and sufficiently resourced international response” in the pandemic in the bill.

And at the beginning of the month, Reps. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Francis Rooney, R-Fla., led 123 House members in writing to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California to request “robust” foreign aid funding in the next emergency funding bill.

Thus far, Congress has provided less than $2.4 billion in emergency foreign aid funding for the pandemic out of a total of nearly $3 trillion across multiple supplemental spending bills.

Mark Lowcock, an undersecretary general at the United Nations who leads its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told a Monday press call organized by foreign aid advocates that the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest international humanitarian crisis in the past half-century, and “unfortunately what we’ve got is a grossly inadequate response for the scale of the crisis.”

U.N. short of donations

The United Nations and its various agencies including the World Food Program and UNICEF are seeking coronavirus-related donations to address the public health, humanitarian and socio-economic fallout of the pandemic. Out of about $10 billion in requested donations to the U.N’s various coronavirus fundraising drives, just $2.5 billion has been received or pledged.

Separately, an initiative of the World Health Organization and the European Commission to pool international resources to cooperatively develop, finance and distribute coronavirus vaccines and medical treatments , the ACT Accelerator, has received pledges of just $3.4 billion out of a needed $31.3 billion in funding. The United States does not participate in the ACT Accelerator.

The absence of U.S. leadership on the global stage to cajole donations and coordinate strategy with other wealthy developed nations has been keenly felt during this crisis, said Lowcock, who contended that U.S. leadership was essential in resolving other recent global crises such as HIV, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa.

Just last week, President Donald Trump announced he had begun the formal process of withdrawing the United States from WHO, which the United States has been the principal financial funder of for decades.

“The problem is that only the U.S. has the capability and the leadership potential to convene the whole of the world behind an effective response,” said Lowcock, a longtime British international development official. “If the U.S. does play a leadership role, the rest of the world can be mobilized to follow.”

Sen. Chris Coons, a foreign aid appropriator, said in a prepared video message that it was a “significant blow to our leadership on the world stage” when Trump announced he was pulling out of WHO.

“When the United States retreats … from world leadership, others rush in to fill that vacuum,” the Delaware Democrat said, adding he was advocating for at least $12 billion in coronavirus foreign aid.

McConnell said Tuesday the Senate’s latest coronavirus spending bill could be released “in the next week or two.” While the level of international assistance that could be included in the measure remains unclear, the amount that foreign aid advocates are pushing for has risen since the spring.

In April, a coalition of foreign aid groups called for at least $12 billion in international assistance to be included in the next emergency spending bill. But no aid came. In fact, the $3 trillion supplemental coronavirus bill (HR 6800) that the House passed in May also did not include any funds for international assistance.

Since that time, with the global public health, humanitarian and economic fallout worsening, the amount of money it is going to take to address those problems has grown, said Tom Hart, North America executive director of the global anti-poverty organization The One Campaign. He would like to see $18 billion to $20 billion in the next emergency spending bill.

House Democrats have included $10 billion in emergency international coronavirus assistance in their version of the fiscal 2021 State-Foreign Operations budget bill (HR 7608). The legislation is expected to pass the House next week, but it could be months before a version is enacted after negotiations with the Senate.

Time is running out

Foreign aid advocates say the international community doesn’t have that kind of time if it wants to get ahead of the multiple problems the pandemic is creating or worsening, including rising food insecurity and millions of children missing planned vaccinations for preventable diseases like measles, cholera and tuberculosis.

“The food repercussions are very, very alarming,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, said during the call. “It’s at a point where we’re worried we’re going to be losing thousands and thousands of lives.”

Fore, a former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the George W. Bush administration, said she fears that if the global community doesn’t rally to help developing countries during the crisis then as many as 6,000 children a day could die in the next six months from preventable diseases.

There are nearly 13.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases around the world, with cases rapidly rising in India, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Mexico, among other countries.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, a senior foreign aid appropriator, told reporters she doesn’t think $10 billion is enough for an international response but she is focused on protecting at least that amount as the spending negotiations continue.

Niels Lesniewski and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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