American Leadership in Times of Crisis

August 4, 2011 By Jane Kaminski

To many around the world, America’s global leadership is never shown more clearly than when the United States responds to a humanitarian crisis.  From our efforts following last year’s earthquake in Haiti to the AIDS crisis in Africa or a devastating cyclone in southeast Asia, American efforts are second to none when it comes responding quickly and effectively to disasters, alleviating suffering, and saving lives.  When a child’s life is saved or a family finds shelter as a result of U.S. humanitarian relief efforts, we demonstrate the finest of American values.  However, the International Affairs Budget is facing some of the steepest cuts in history.

While the exact impact of this new budget agreement on the FY12 International Affairs Budget will be determined this fall by House and Senate appropriators, it is clear continued deep cuts to non-war related development and diplomacy programs are in the offing.  Before this current deal, the non-war related portions of the International Affairs Budget were already looking at more than a 20% reduction in just two years, with some accounts facing cuts of more than 30%.

Cuts of that magnitude will severely weaken the ability of the U.S. to effectively mitigate the impact of humanitarian crises around the world through preventative programs, which  ultimately save lives and money.  In an example cited by former USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Mark Ward, a 1991 cyclone hit Bangladesh and killed over 130,000 people.  In response, USAID built earthen dams and replanted mangrove trees in the delta–both proven, effective measures in buffering areas against cyclones and tsunamis.  In 2007, a comparably massive storm, Cyclone Sidr, struck the same area.  While even one life lost is too many, the death toll dropped to 10,000.  Those dams and mangroves were inexpensive measures and ultimately saved over a hundred thousand lives, as well as millions of additional dollars that would have been spent in humanitarian relief.

While the federal deficit is a serious problem that must be addressed, it cannot be fixed on the back of the International Affairs Budget.  These cuts, which make up a fraction of 1% of the federal budget, will not balance the budget.  Outside of the frontline states, International Affairs programs mitigate disasters while saving thousands of lives and U.S. tax dollars in the long run.  By improving communities and lives around the world, U.S. humanitarian programs also improve America’s standing and leadership in these regions.  In failed states, humanitarian relief programs offer an opportunity for increased U.S. leadership in the developing world.  Deep cuts to programs of U.S. global engagement would not only hinder the ability to mitigate crises, they would hinder America’s ability to lead abroad.