Congress cuts humanitarian spending despite billions for Ukraine

Foreign aid advocates 'flabbergasted' at cuts during major refugee crisis

A volunteer distributes food to Ukrainian refugees upon their arrival at the main railway station in Berlin on Monday. (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)
A volunteer distributes food to Ukrainian refugees upon their arrival at the main railway station in Berlin on Monday. (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted March 15, 2022 at 9:00am

Corrected April 20 | The bipartisan spending deal that Congress cleared last week provides billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine, but it cuts other humanitarian programs meant to address mounting hunger crises elsewhere in the world, including Afghanistan and West Africa.

When the bill’s $4.1 billion in emergency supplemental humanitarian funding for Ukraine is excluded, the baseline fiscal 2022 spending level for humanitarian accounts covered by the State-Foreign Operations title comes in at $6.8 billion — a $1 billion cut compared to fiscal 2021 enacted levels.

[Senate clears $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill]

The Biden administration had requested over $8.5 billion in total fiscal 2022 funding spread over two principal humanitarian aid accounts: the State Department’s Migration and Refugee Assistance account and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s International Disaster Assistance account. The initial House-passed bill and one offered in the Senate, written by majority Democrats, would have largely fulfilled the White House’s humanitarian funding request.

In interviews and statements, foreign aid advocates said they were “embarrassed” and “flabbergasted” that Congress reduced funds for dealing with the worst refugee displacements since World War II and other crises caused by mounting natural disasters and manmade conflicts.

“It cuts the humanitarian [account] disastrously,” said Lisa Peña, director of policy, budget and appropriations for foreign aid advocacy organization InterAction. “This bill was insufficient prior to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin even moving his tanks near the border with Ukraine. We knew there were food price spikes on food and other commodities prior to the war in Ukraine.”

When President Joe Biden submitted his fiscal 2022 international affairs spending proposal to lawmakers last spring, and when the House passed its version of the annual foreign aid bill in July, the Taliban had yet to take over all of Afghanistan. Considering that, foreign aid experts had been anticipating Congress would have to boost humanitarian levels from what was initially requested in order to respond to the rapidly rising needs out of Afghanistan as well as worsening conflicts and instability in Ethiopia and Myanmar.

The cuts to nonemergency humanitarian spending, as well as the lack of any international COVID-19 assistance in the omnibus, are a “self-inflicted wound” to America’s ability to recover from the pandemic and to pursue its long-term national security interests, said Liz Schrayer, USGLC president.

“There is no question that we’re terribly concerned when we look at what has come out of this budget deal in the international affairs programming,” Schrayer said in an interview. “The breadbasket of the world is having a war right now. Everyone knows that there is a drought expected in West Africa. … We have 45 million people on the verge of starvation.”

Base fiscal 2022 State-Foreign Operations spending received an increase over enacted levels of 1 percent, or nearly $600 million — the smallest increase of any of the 12 federal spending bills that Congress passed last week as part of its omnibus spending deal. The White House had initially sought an increase of 12 percent to the international affairs budget.

Blame game

Independent budget analysts have pinned blame on Republicans’ insistence that any increases in nondefense spending be kept roughly equal to increases in defense spending, and to both parties choosing to prioritize larger increases for domestic spending bills at the expense of the State-Foreign Operations title.

“We have more people who are hungry and people who are hungrier getting hungrier and we have no grain. It is absolutely catastrophic,” Peña said. “SFOPs got the raw end of the stick.”

The Senate’s lead foreign aid appropriator issued a similar view in an uncharacteristically blunt statement for a congressional appropriations cardinal criticizing his own bill.

“The SFOPs account is not a piggy bank that can be raided by other appropriation accounts,” Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Chairman Chris Coons, D-Del., said last week.

And Coons’ House State-Foreign Operations subcommittee counterpart, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said the $56.1 billion baseline funding level “is not nearly enough to meet the diplomatic, humanitarian and development needs around the world.”

While fiscal 2022 defense spending saw an increase of 5.6 percent over last year’s levels, the nondefense spending accounts got a boost of 6.7 percent — but not the foreign aid portfolio.

Multiple lawmakers have pointed to the over $4 billion in emergency humanitarian funding for the Ukraine crisis to argue Congress has provided ample taxpayer assistance this year for foreign aid.

Still, budget experts do not believe the Russia-Ukraine war, which has dominated Capitol Hill’s attention in recent weeks, is the reason other humanitarian disasters did not see a funding injection.

For one thing, Appropriations subcommittee spending levels, known as 302(b)s, were set in early February, weeks before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

Even as appropriators like Coons have pledged to push for higher foreign aid spending levels in fiscal 2023, advocates are nervous about those prospects.

Considering that Democrats might lose unified control of the White House and Congress after the November midterm elections, the fiscal 2022 appropriations levels were viewed as the high-water mark for Democrats to lock in robust spending increases. That would help cushion the blow of probable GOP pushes for cuts to foreign aid, which remains unpopular with an outspoken minority of Republican fiscal hardliners.

Any supplemental aid for Ukraine, and possibly for the global coronavirus pandemic, will likely have a fleeting impact on the overall budget, experts say.

“At the end of the day, we all know that an emergency supplemental is exactly what it says it is. It is an emergency supplemental that is not part of the regular budget and so there is an artificially low baseline for humanitarian assistance moving forward, just looking at the numbers, and that is concerning for conversations around what is needed for the coming fiscal year,” said one foreign aid professional, who did not have authorization to speak candidly about the budget.

Food price spikes

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations projected that 274 million people globally would need humanitarian assistance and protection this year. That represents an increase of 39 million people from the 235 million who were estimated to need such support in 2021.

And even before the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war last month, global food prices were already higher than at any point since 2011.

“Russia and Ukraine are breadbaskets of the world. Their food exports account for about 12 percent of total calories traded in the world. Together, they export about 30 percent of the world’s wheat,” USGLC deputy policy director Alexis-Clair Roehrich and policy intern Justin Hurley wrote in an analysis posted last week.

“War may disrupt the ability to harvest and transport food commodities as workers have been called to battle,” the duo wrote. “Not only is the effect of war immediate but could harm future crop rotations if farmers are unable to harvest this season’s crops.”

Respectively, Russia and Ukraine are the first and fifth-largest exporters of wheat in the world with Ukrainian wheat previously supplying humanitarian programs in Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan and elsewhere.

“The effects on the ground make for brutal choices,” U.N. World Food Program Director David Beasley wrote in an op-ed last week. “With our funding leveling off because donor nations’ treasuries are so stretched, we have had to slash rations to refugees and other populations across East Africa and the Middle East. Halved rations mean hungry children eating the equivalent of just one bowl of cereal each day.”

This report has been corrected to reflect Lisa Peña's employer.