The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Why Congress must find a way to save conflict prevention programs

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Massive proposed budget cuts to two crucial accounts essentially mean that the Congress believes the United States should be using its foreign assistance to mop up after crises instead of preventing them.

The debate on the federal budget has become so boilerplate that I can’t force myself to read the opinion pages any more.

Michael Kinsley recently wrote a piece supporting the proposal to eliminate the US Institute of Peace. He’s dead-wrong on that, but he was right that most budget commentary these days is formulaic – checking off a list of requirements:

1. Expression of general support for deficit reduction.
2. Reference to babies and bathwater.
3. This program/agency/tax break is different. A bargain for the taxpayers. Pays for itself many times over. To eliminate or cut would be bad for children/our troops.
4. Cost is small (a) as percentage of total budget; (b) compared with budget of Pentagon; (c) compared with projected cost of health care.
5. Optional comparisons: to cost of just one jet fighter or 3.7 minutes of War on Terror.
6. Names of famous people who support this program or tax cut, especially Colin Powell.
7. This is about the other side irresponsibly pursuing an ideological agenda, penalizing programs it doesn’t like.

Ok – so today, I want to rebut a proposed budget cut. AND I want to accept Kinsley’s challenge not to use the checklist. Here I go…

Title: Why Congress must find a way to save conflict prevention programs without falling into the seven Kinsley clichés.

The number of civilians living under constant threat of armed conflict and massive human rights abuse globally is stunning. Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has lost eight percent of its people to conflict and the deadly hunger and disease it has unleashed. If the US lost a similar proportion of civilians, 25 million people, approximately the population of Texas, would have died. I am quite sure the vast majority of Congress would agree that these forms of mass atrocities have no place in a civilized world and must be prevented.

Oxfam water taps at an Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Democratic Republic of Congo.  People who live in places like Sudan or DRC bear the brunt of conflict and do not vote in US elections.  Photo by Liz Lucas/Oxfam America.
Oxfam water taps at an Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Democratic Republic of Congo. People who live in places like Sudan or DRC bear the brunt of conflict and do not vote in US elections. Photo by Liz Lucas/Oxfam America.

So it is odd that the House version of the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution (HR 1) contained massive cuts to two signature accounts designed to prevent and respond to conflict and state fragility: the Complex Crisis Fund (CCF) and the Conflict Stabilization Operations Account (CSO). Fortunately, HR 1 failed in the Senate by vote of 44-56. But even so, this funding is still under threat because it could still be cut as compromises are made during the budgeting process.

Most money given to the State Department and USAID by Congress is earmarked for specific activities in specific countries and not able to be spent on emergencies. The CCF is a crucial source of flexible funding for civilian agencies, without which the State Department and USAID are unable to act quickly when conflicts escalate or to undertake rapid stabilization, prevention, and crisis response activities. HR 1 cut all money out of this account.

The CSO funds the people and organization required to bring expertise to bear in situations of crisis. It funds the Civilian Response Corps (CRC) and the State Department’s Office for the Coordinator of Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS). The CRC – a new corps of civilian experts trained and deployed to help prevent and mitigate conflict – now includes over 1,200 active and standby members who are able to support US efforts in the most troubled spots in the world, including Afghanistan, Sudan, and Kyrgyzstan. HR 1 cut this account by about 80 percent.

As my colleague Gawain mentioned in his blog post last week, “Budgeting is a blunt tool to make policy… Cutting one thing rather than another is a way that policy-makers express their values, vision, and priorities.”

I could understand these cuts if the State Department and USAID didn’t have a clear vision for their use or if there was mismanagement of funds in the past. But this is not the case. Massive cuts to these two accounts essentially mean that the Congress believes the United States should be using its foreign assistance to mop up after crises instead of preventing them.

After years of waiting for a President to step up and move beyond platitudes, the Obama administration is taking steps to improve its capacity to prevent conflict. For the first time in US history the recently released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review states that conflict prevention and response is now a core mission of the US government. The Administration is now defining prevention as a distinct discipline that would enable better organization and career paths for conflict experts within the bureaucracy. Without a career path for experts, the government has a hard time attracting dedicated and talented people. A cadre of conflict prevention experts within USAID and State could help save a lot of money in humanitarian aid in the long run, not to mention lives.

Secondly, the Complex Crisis Fund and Civilian Response Corps were used effectively over the past year and helped prevent major internal conflict in southern Sudan around the referendum for independence. No one in the humanitarian community thought that the referendum in January would have been completed as peacefully as it did. There was, and still is, a real risk that conflict would break out between southern communities as the referendum approached. Yet the referendum passed without major incident. I wouldn’t say that the CSO was responsible for that outcome (the people of Sudan are the ones deserve the credit), but the CRC contributed to the outcome by greatly extending US presence in southern Sudan and enhanced US understanding of conflict dynamics and the security needs of the people. CRC members traveled to all parts of the region to meet with community members, the United Nations, NGOs, and southern Sudanese government officials. Getting out of the capital and talking to regular people helped US diplomats obtain a real understanding of the context and helped shape wise policy interventions forestalling major conflict.

Who could be against using a small amount of money to prevent crises abroad?

The answer is that no one really is against the types of programs that the administration undertook in Sudan. The cuts are not about the quality of the program, but about politics. Congress cuts areas that are either politically unpopular or have little constituencies calling for robust funding. Because the people who bear the brunt of conflict and instability live in places like Sudan and Congo and do not vote in US elections, it is easy for the House to cut support for conflict prevention. The tragic reality is that unless member of Congress hears from constituents in the United States, these types of programs will always be the first to be cut.

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