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Could US budget cuts mean slashing aid to Africa?

With the Obama administration facing Republican pressure to cut the budget, the government's $50 billion overseas programs could be on the table.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 3, 2011



Johannesburg, South Africa

When it comes to structural adjustment, the US government generally plays the role of the donor nation, setting conditions on debtor nations in order to get their fiscal houses in order.

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This year, the US government, having reached its self-imposed limit for how much money it can borrow, is scrambling to pay its bills and keep its creditors at bay.

With President Obama's administration and the Republican-controlled Congress debating how to cut back government spending, everything is on the table, including America’s $50 billion overseas programs, including foreign aid.

Republicans rejected a measure this week to raise the US government’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the knives will almost certainly come out. The implications for African aid recipients – many of whom rely heavily on US foreign development aid – could be dramatic.

But a number of high-level US State Department and aid officials, on a recent visit to South Africa, said that foreign aid programs such as former President George Bush’s ongoing President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) enjoy bipartisan support. And the US government is both changing the way it gives out foreign aid, empowering local governments to take on their own development, and remaining engaged with a developing world that increasingly has choices of whom it does business with.

“The logo of USAID says, ‘from the American people,’ but I think the American people increasingly understand that our development commitments in Africa also generate outcomes for the American people,” says Raj Shah, the chief administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which handles most of the US government’s foreign development assistance.

“It’s an expression of our moral values when we are able to save lives on this continent and protect young children from starving or protect people with HIV from dying when they don’t need to die,” Mr. Shah says. “But we also know these outcomes keep us safe and lay the groundwork for economic stability and growth.”

Foreign aid to Africa may have bipartisan support in Congress, but ordinary American voters often see foreign aid as a colossal waste of taxpayer money – while also vastly overestimating the US government's foreign aid budget. In a November 2010 poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org and Knowledge Networks, Americans were asked what percentage of the US federal budget was spent on foreign aid; the median answer was 25 percent. When asked what would be the “appropriate” percentage of the budget spent on foreign aid; the median answer was a much more parsimonious 10 percent figure. The US actually spends only 1 percent of its federal budget on foreign aid.

If budget cutters were to go after giant projects, then the six-year-old initiative PEPFAR would present an attractive project. At $7.2 billion in the Fiscal 2012 budget, it is the largest single foreign aid program of its kind, not only in the US federal budget, but also in the world. In South Africa alone, 917,000 men, women, and children are able to receive Anti-Retro Viral (ARV) treatment each year because of the PEPFAR program, and doctors estimate that some 114,000 babies worldwide have been born HIV-free because of ARV treatments made available to their HIV-positive parents.

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