Sequestration Means Fewer Lives Saved, Less American Influence Abroad

By Marc Hanson

Today is Congress’s last chance to pass a budget deal. Failure to act will result in across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

While the American people rightly view this as another manufactured crisis from Washington, these capricious cuts could do real damage. If sequestration is allowed to occur, a wide range of programs from education to air travel will be affected, and our fragile economic recovery could stall. Abroad, our reputation will suffer as nations wonder if America really can govern itself.

Negotiations on Capitol Hill seem to have deadlocked, and lawmakers of both parties appear more interested in assigning blame than hammering out a compromise. That blame game, and the accompanying media coverage, has highlighted the pain that sequestration will cause for specific groups of American workers and industries. But the negative ramifications of these cuts for our foreign policy are real and have not received nearly as much attention. The fact is that the decision lawmakers make today could change the nature of American global leadership for years or decades to come. 

According to a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry to Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sequestration would slash $2.6 billion dollars from the international affairs budget. Humanitarian accounts, including direct aid for refugees and displaced people, would be cut by $200 million this fiscal year alone.

These cuts would take effect at a time when American aid is not keeping pace with growing needs around the world – from Syria, to Mali, to eastern Congo. And the cuts would not just take place over the next 12 months. Sequestration will slash funding for a decade if not confronted, with grave consequences for vulnerable people everywhere.

In Kerry’s first speech as America’s chief diplomat, he acknowledged that our ability to engage around the world is rooted in our nation’s budget. If these deep and capricious cuts go forward, humanitarian aid for millions of people will end and other vital programs will be recklessly slashed. Lives will be lost, and America’s influence will wane.

As the Brookings Institution recently noted, we live in a ‘plastic moment’ in global affairs – a time of uncertainty and instability, but one in which the U.S. can seize opportunities by dedicating the necessary resources. America’s  ability to respond in times of crisis, and the tools at our disposal, could make the difference between great promise and peril.

Last week, Refugees International joined other aid groups in pressing lawmakers to preserve humanitarian funding. As we pointed out, the looming cuts would shift resources away from key priorities: preventing and responding to gender-based violence, protecting the rights of refugees in urban areas, and providing educational and training opportunities that can reduce long-term dependence on aid.

Sequestration would also slash U.S. assistance in major global hotspots. In Somalia, cuts to personnel and humanitarian programming could delay reforms to the aid delivery system, allowing gatekeepers to continue preying upon internally displaced people. In Colombia, where a decades-long conflict may be coming to an end, displaced families will not be able to recover and rebuild without American help.

And in Syria, where the scale of human misery has grown faster than anyone expected, a lack of U.S. aid could have devastating consequences. The assistance America has already provided is saving lives, and it has encouraged non-traditional donors like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to offer generous pledges of support. However, the State Department and USAID need more resources to effectively deliver aid both inside and outside of Syria. Millions of Syrian civilians will continue to suffer in the months ahead, but less American aid will be forthcoming if sequestration hits.

The fact of the matter is that sequestration will limit America’s reach overseas, inhibit our ability to save lives, and undermine a more stable and prosperous future for millions around the world. Congress must act now to avoid these damaging cuts.