U.S. State Department, Foreign Aid Take Hit In Budget Deal

Last week's agreement on the 2011 budget cut more than $8 billion in funding to the U.S. State Department. This includes millions of dollars of cuts in food aid, health programs and economic aid abroad. Foreign Service officers will also have their pay increases frozen. To understand what these cuts mean for foreign operations and international aid, host Michel Martin speaks with George Ingram, former Deputy Assistant Administrator of U.S. Aid agency, USAID.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

She wanted her daughter to know more about the grandmother she'd never met. So she wrote a children's book as a tribute to her. A conversation with Maya Soetoro-Ng. She also happens to be President Obama's sister. We'll talk about her book, "Ladder to the Moon."

But, first, we're going to talk more about the topic of spending. A few minutes ago we talked about the long-term; those big picture plans from both President Obama and House budget chair Paul Ryan to cut the federal deficit down the road. But now we want to spend a few more minutes on the cuts just negotiated to avoid a government shutdown: the billions slashed in order to strike a deal just to the end of the 2011 budget.

We think that negotiation offers clues about the philosophical lines in the long-term battle. Right now we want to talk about the cuts of $8 billion from the government's international affairs budget. That includes major cuts in food aid, health programs and other economic aid.

To talk more about what these funding cuts might mean now and down the road, we've called on George Ingram. He's worked on international development for nearly 40 years. He's currently chair of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an advocate for international development, diplomacy and defense. Before that, he worked as principal deputy assistant administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration. That's the U.S. agency that provides aid for international development worldwide.

Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GEORGE INGRAM (Chair, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition): Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: What of these cuts are you most concerned about? I do have to mention that the current USAID administrator, Rajiv Shah, when the cuts were even being debated, warned Congress earlier this month in some very dire terms. He said that these - some of the proposals on the table then would've cut food and water to the Darfur region of Sudan in half and prevented millions of children from receiving malaria treatment. He painted a very vivid picture. What are you most concerned about now?

Mr. INGRAM: Well, to put it in the - understand the context, this foreign assistance is less than one percent of the federal budget. But it's 17 percent of the cuts that were on the table. And I'm particularly concerned about the cut by a third in the administration's initiative for Feed the Future. Secondly, a cut of a billion dollars from our contributions to the international financial institutions. The Peace Corps is cut - the organization that puts Americans in the field. And USAID operating expenses are cut about $150 million.

MARTIN: You recently co-authored an opinion piece stating we have to stop using foreign assistance as a budget pinata. What did you mean by that? And why do you think it is a budget pinata?

Mr. INGRAM: Well, it's a budget pinata right now because in the 2011 budget discussions, what have we been talking about? Have we been talking about the whole budget? No. We've been talking about 12 percent of the budget, the discretionary part of the budget. And in that part of the budget, when you look where most of the domestic spending occurs, a lot of the policymakers take a look at the education, highways and they say, we can't cut those. And they look at foreign assistance and that's something overseas. And they don't fully understand the extent to which that's in the national interest.

MARTIN: And do you think that it is that many of the people making these decisions either don't understand what the money is used for? Or they just don't agree with it?

Mr. INGRAM: I think 15 years ago, when we were dealing with the Congress, a lot of them did understand what it's used for. In our recent conversations on the Hill, they understand what it's used for. They actually - many of them understand the importance. But they're bottom line is: we've got to cut the budget, irrespective.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say to that? If people who say, look, we do have to cut the budget. I mean, if you're living in a budget environment in which we're telling, you know, seniors, taxpayers, American citizens, people who paid taxes their whole life that we're not going to spend as much to support their medical care or their health care, there are those who would say, well, it's unfortunate, but you just have to - you have to - everybody's got to take a share of the hit.

Mr. INGRAM: Well, a few month ago I would say Afghanistan, today I say the Middle East. And you can incur a small investment today or you can incur a gigantic investment down the road, as we've had to incur in Afghanistan with the instability caused there.

MARTIN: Well, I'm going to give you - in the minute that we have left, I'm going to give you a minute for you to make the case about why this kind of spending does indeed matter.

Mr. INGRAM: Well, take the case of the administration's initiative on Feed the Future. This is an initiative that has been agreed to internationally. Many other donors are participating. And it's designed to take people in developing countries from an inability to feed themselves, to being able to meet the hunger needs, the food needs of their family.

And it's designed to reduce poverty, bring in sustainable economic growth, empower women. Who are the farmers around the world? Eighty percent of the farmers in the world are women. And it moves - it will move them off of dependence of relief into making - meeting their own needs.

MARTIN: And, finally, before I let you go, we only have about 30 seconds left, and I apologize for that. You know, you're part of a group that's actually working to, what you call, modernize foreign aid. So, can it be done better? Can people get more bang for the buck, and if so, how?

Mr. INGRAM: There are ways that this administration - we've been pushing for greater accountability, greater monitoring and evaluation, actually hiring more employees at AID, so AID has the capability to effectively manage the programs and to respond to the needs and make sure our programs actually meet the needs of people in the field.

MARTIN: George Ingram is a former principal deputy assistant administrator of USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. He's currently the chair of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. He's also part of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. And he was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Ingram, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. INGRAM: Thank you.

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