As US nears government shutdown, foreign assistance appropriations bill held up by disagreements over family planning amendment

An amendment to the State Foreign Operations (SFOPS) appropriations bill, which largely funds US foreign assistance, has caused a snag in the fiscal year 2020 final spending approvals. Senator Jeanne Shaheen secured an agreement that the Senate version of SFOPS includes language that would prohibit USAID from discriminating in services provided to individuals on the basis of factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, and political affiliation. At the urging of anti-abortion and faith-based groups, the White House is now raising concerns about the language.

Senator Shaheen says that the language simply requires USAID to comply with existing law on nondiscrimination. The language also contains certain reporting requirements that would require USAID to notify the appropriations committee of instances of non-compliance. Opponents of the language say it could prevent the awarding of USAID contracts to faith-based organizations, effectively 'blacklisting' 'pro-life' and 'pro-family' groups. The language in the House bill is stronger than that in the Senate's and contains a provision that repeals the Mexico City policy. Also known as the 'global gag' rule, the controversial policy prevents the allocation of US dollars to any organization that provides access to, information about, referrals for, or advocacy relating to abortion, even if the US funding is used wholly on other non-abortion-related projects. If that provision had made it into the final bill, it likely would have drawn a veto by President Trump.

The House and Senate are trying to finish negotiations and votes on all appropriations bills before December 20, 2019, when the current continuing resolution, which is funding the US government, will expire. 

News article - Roll Call

United States Global health

US State Department to undertake budgetary reforms to prevent future rescissions

The US State Department's Office of US Foreign Assistance Resources ("F Bureau") has committed to budget reforms that will assist in streamlining decisions on US assistance and attempt to avert budget rescission efforts that have plagued the US budget process over the last few years. The Trump administration failed this year to appropriate all US assistance funding that Congress had approved for expenditure. This was due, at least in part, to deliberate efforts not to allocate funding, in order to prevent its spending.  The administration also tried twice in 2019 to rescind already-allocated assistance funding. Both times these attempts were stymied by Congress.

F Bureau Director Jim Richardson commented on the reforms, saying, "The fact is, the system is just designed to make last-minute decisions, and the reality is we can no longer operate that way."

USAID has also announced plans to reform certain processes and to hire more procurement staff, in response to criticism of understaffing and inefficiency.

News article - Devex

United States

USAID missions ordered to comply with Trump's 'foreign assistance realignment', despite the fact that review and documents have not yet been published

Missions to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have been told to comply with a yet-to-be-issued Trump administration 'foreign assistance realignment.' At the 2018 UN General Assembly, Trump announced a foreign assistance review (FAR). Although a draft was circulated in 2019, no final document has yet been issued and it is not clear that the process has actually concluded. Despite this, USAID missions were asked, during the fiscal year 2019 planning process, to address how a series of ten principles have affected US operations. USAID’s operating units had to submit 'operational plan foreign assistance realignment narratives', describing how the FAR principles applied within their country, region, or bureau.  If they did not align, an explanation for nonalignment was required.

Congressional concern for the FAR was reflected in the FY 2019 appropriations which required USAID and the State Department to consult with and regularly notify the respective appropriations committees for any “programmatic, funding, and implementation changes resulting from the implementation of the Foreign Assistance Review".  It is unclear what notifications or consultations with Congress have occurred. 

News article - Devex

United States

US Commission recommends improvements to US global health security

A US commission established by the Center for Strategic and International Relations (CSIS) released a report on 'Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Global Health Security'. 

The report makes seven recommendations for actions that both the White House and Congress could take to improve global health security and the role of the US in the field. Members of the CSIS commission included four members of the US House of Representatives, two senators, and 12 other leaders from the global health, development, and national security fields. The report was discussed at a recent Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

The recommendations included:

  • Restoring the health security post at the National Security Council;
  • Providing multi-year funding for the global health security agenda; and
  • Establishing a challenge fund at the World Bank and a global health response corp in the US, and otherwise ensuring both rapid resources in emergencies and delivery of critical services and new technologies.

News article - Devex

Commission report - CSIS

United States Global health

Staff cuts to USAID are harming oversight in Iraq, report finds

Iraq is one of the biggest recipients of assistance from the US, with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) managing US$1.2 billion in development, humanitarian assistance, and stabilization efforts. An inspector general (IG) report, jointly written by IGs from USAID, the State Department and the Department of Defense, has raised serious concerns that deep staff cuts are creating difficulties for properly overseeing the programs there.

The IG report found that the large portfolio when combined with non-Iraqi staff reductions “create uncertainty as to how programs will be overseen remotely ... Uncertainty around staffing levels also raises questions about USAID’s continuing ability to effectively oversee its high-priority, high-risk portfolio.”

Despite having large, ambitious and complex development assistance projects in Iraq, USAID has cut nearly 80% of its non-Iraqi staff over the last year. According to the IG report, USAID officials reported the cuts “have had significant adverse effects” on the oversight and management of grants.

News report - ProPublica

United States

USAID to step up presence as instability grows in the Sahel

In a hearing before a US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, officials from both the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) spoke to the deteriorating security situation in the the Sahel.  According to officials, both humanitarian and development assistance are critically required in the region, but the presence of armed groups have made access to assistance more difficult.

USAID notes that the number of displaced people has increased, with now there being more than 270,000 refugees and 900,000 internally displaced people in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. According to an official from the USAID African Bureau, USAID is stepping up its presence and is working with their partners on three priority issues including “countering violent extremism, building citizen responsive governance, and strengthening resilience" in the region. 

News article - Devex

United States

US President considers conditioning US assistance on the basis of religious freedom

Aides to US President Donald Trump are drafting an executive order which would condition US foreign assistance on the basis of how well countries treat their religious minorities.  The proposal is expected to include humanitarian and development assistance and could potentially also include US military assistance.

Such an order, if passed, could affect several countries that receive US assistance. Currently, the executive order is in its preliminary stage and it remains unclear how the new conditions would work and how broadly they would apply. Some experts have warned that choosing which recipients of USAID would be singled out could be difficult, in part because several countries that are allies of the US do not have good records on religious freedom.

Key parts of the administration have been involved in the discussion process, including Vice President Pence, who is a conservative Christian. While President Trump has often spoken about the importance of religious freedom, critics contend that this order is just another way to appeal to his evangelical Christian base.  

News article - Politico

United States

USAID officials say vice president Pence is preferencing Christian groups for US assistance

An investigative report by ProPublica highlights suspicions of political interference with development assistance grants from by the office of United States' vice president Mike Pence with grant awards

Decisions about US development assistance are usually made by career officials at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), using rigorous standards. Political pressure from Pence's office to preference Christian groups in Iraq has begun to muddy the process, however, according to USAID employees. Unusual participation by political appointees, top-down changes to grant awards, and the unexpected removal of a USAID staffer from a mid-east post has left many fearing for their job and gravely concerned about the sidelining of the strict procedures that once governed their work, in favor Pence's political and religious preferences.

USAID regulations are clear that all awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”  The vice president's office responded to the report, defending the decisions as the most effective way to provide assistance to victims of Islamic State genocide.

News article - ProPublica

News article - The Washington Times

United States

USAID adds new counter-terrorism restrictions on development assistance to Nigeria

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has added a provision to all of its grants, aimed at preventing Boko Haram and the breakaway Islamic State of West Africa Province, or ISWAP, from benefiting from US assistance. The provision states that all recipient agencies of US funding “must obtain the prior written approval of the USAID Agreement Officer before providing any assistance... to individuals whom the Recipient affirmatively knows to have been formerly affiliated with Boko Haram or [ISWAP], as combatants or non-combatants”.

Workers on the ground have said that, in practice, this means that they risk violating US anti-terrorism laws if they have not vetted those they are trying to help and refuse to help those that might have had links to Boko Haram or ISWAP. Such an approach also contravenes humanitarian principles and is impractical to implement. To date, UNICEF is the only agency in Nigeria to refuse US funding because of the new provision.

News report - The New Humanitarian

United States

Australia announces membership of the Blue Dot Network

The Australian Government has joined with the US and Japan in a Blue Dot Network to promote high-quality standards for global infrastructure development. They will provide technical expertise to  potential investors in new projects, particularly  in the Indo-Pacific region. The Network was announced at an event held beside the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, held  in Thailand.

News article - ABC Australia

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