Deepmala Mahla, Mercy Corps country director for South Sudan, knows firsthand how the threat of famine and disease can spread quickly in the face of conflict. South Sudan—along with Nigeria, Somlia, and Yemen—is in dire need of help, and foreign aid is crucial to saving lives, she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But pleas to increase foreign aid in these four countries come at a time when the White House is proposing detrimental cuts and eliminations to foreign aid.
South Sudan is a country ravaged by internal political conflict that has displaced millions of people. Conflict and drought have caused widespread hunger. Humanitarian workers and supplies have been targeted by militias and many have fled the country. Despite internal threats to aid workers, Mahla and her Mercy Corps team in South Sudan are committed to addressing immediate needs of food security and longer-term development. She has been a vocal advocate for foreign aid, writing extensively in publications like Huffington Post and The Guardian about the dire need for increased aid in places like South Sudan.
US Budget Cuts to Aid: Re-defining American Development Policy
The White House’s proposed budget for 2018 slashes critical USAID funds for global health initiatives, food security, famine relief and fighting climate change, all while boosting defense funds. The budget has sparked outcry from both Republicans and Democrats, former military personnel, and foreign aid experts. Cutting international aid in the interest of national security and failing taxpayer investments abroad undermines the long-term effectiveness of soft power diplomacy, and could lead to even more global instability.
“I think some liberal internationalists tend to talk about ending poverty. Realists or conservative internationalists tend to look at what the threats are to the United States”, says former USAID head Andrew Nastios. “We have radical Islamist groups that are threatening to destabilize our friends and allies in Africa and the Middle East ... Now, part of that is a military solution, but it also is improving the school systems, improving public services, improving the health systems in these countries so that there isn't an appeal from these radical groups.”
U.S. foreign aid makes up just 1 percent of the total budget and any cuts would have little impact on the deficit. The U.S. is the largest global funder in terms of dollars spent, but it spends far less than other industrialized nations in relation to the size of its economy, ranking 22nd in terms of contribution.
Aid in South Sudan: Saving Lives Today and Investing in Tomorrow
Mahla knows most people see aid in the framework of global humanitarian work or emergency relief. However, aid extends far beyond the humanitarian agenda. It is a tool used for national security interests, expanding markets, and global stability. Read below for a conversation we had with her about her perspective on aid, proposed budget cuts, and how market-based solutions to poverty could build a more resilient South Sudan.
GE: How is the work you do made possible by foreign aid?
Deepmala: Essentially all the work we do is made possible by aid from bilateral governments, including the U.S. and European donors. As a nonprofit organization, we do not generate any profits or resources of our own, so we depend on aid to serve the communities most in need. And South Sudan is in an extremely dire situation: a localized famine was declared in February of this year, and though around June or July that was downgraded, the overall situation of the country deteriorated.
Six million people, which is half the country, do not know where their next meal is coming from. 1.7 million people are on the brink of starvation and 45,000 people are experiencing famine conditions right now. Four million people have been displaced: 2 million in the country and 2 million who had to flee. And it’s important to note that all these people who have been displaced have been displaced multiple times, not once. So people are in urgent and dire need.
Nobody has a lot of time left.
Six million people, which is half the country, do not know where their next meal is coming from.
We do a lot of life-saving work, which includes water, sanitation, and hygiene. Because when we talk about a hunger crisis, people don’t only need food. There is a huge cholera outbreak, there’s risk of other waterborne diseases, and often between starvation and death, there is disease.
We also work on education because education, though technically not lifesaving, affects the future of the nation. At Mercy Corps, we strongly believe that while it is very, very important to save a life today, it is equally important to leave people with some safety net, some resources to rebuild their lives. So, for example, when we support people to fight the risk of famine, we will give them seeds of crops and vegetables, farming tools, and fishing kits so they can rebuild their lives. And then more in our medium-term work, we work around reviving the local market and the local economy, helping people have livelihood options and working at local levels on social cohesion so as to improve the community resilience so they are prepared for any shock in the future. All of this is possible only with aid. We are saving lives right now, and we can save many, many more if there are more financial services. We are doing our best with what we have, with the available amount of aid.
GE: How would the proposed budget cuts to USAID affect the type of development work that you do, seeing as the resources are already severely strained?
Deepmala: If the proposed budget cuts become a reality, it would have a very detrimental effect and I would count such decisions as totally irresponsible and careless. I am talking about South Sudan, but there are three other countries at high-risk of famine: Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. We are talking about 50 million people on the brink of starvation, where around 81 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from. This is not the time to talk about aid cuts. This is the time for the international community to come together and put their best foot forward so as to provide the most vulnerable people with the help they need.
For example, the administration is talking about zeroing out the budget for Food for Peace. Food for Peace is one of the mechanisms within the U.S. government that allows longer-term development. So what does that mean? We won’t help and support people to rebuild their lives? We won’t work to help communities thrive?
The other bit of aid cuts being discussed now is around the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance. The discussion is reducing that budget by 43 percent—reducing life-saving services by 43 percent. This is only around 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, and it would put millions of lives at risk.
If the proposed budget cuts become a reality, it would have a very detrimental effect and I would count such decisions as totally irresponsible and careless.
GE: What long-term issues could arise in South Sudan if the issues of famine and conflict are not addressed?
Deepmala: U.S. foreign assistance is so vital to helping families around the world meet their urgent needs and survive through crisis. The world needs the U.S. and organizations like Mercy Corps more than ever. Globally, 65 million people have been uprooted. If not adequately funded, the humanitarian crisis in countries like South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria would lead to dangerous and fatal outcomes for these communities.
More importantly, those fatal outcomes would not stay within those communities. The ripple effects would be felt throughout the world. The international assistance provided by the U.S. plays a critical role in addressing the root causes of this conflict and helping people rebuild their lives. Lifesaving work is one thing, but we have to address the root causes, too. And that happens very critically with U.S. government support. It would be totally shameful to cut foreign aid at a time where four countries are on the brink of famine and we are facing the greatest level of humanitarian need ever since the second World War.
U.S. foreign assistance is so vital to helping families around the world meet their urgent needs and survive through crisis. The world needs the U.S. and organizations like Mercy Corps more than ever.
International aid makes up just one cent out of every American taxpayer’s dollar, yet it provides lifesaving assistance to billions of people in need. So, cuts in no way are going to balance the budget or offset any request for increases. But cutting these programs would also be a security risk: There are many, many reasons for young people to pick up arms. Mercy Corps has done very insightful research that has shown that one of the reasons people join armed groups is a feeling of injustice related to governance. And the other reason is related to poverty and extreme hunger.
It is a governance issue, and good governance is supported by USAID funding.
GE: In your testimony with the Senate Foreign Relations committee, you talked about a “market systems” approach. How are you and your team using this approach and engaging local markets in South Sudan?
Deepmala: We really believe that along with emergency relief support we have to actively work on helping people recover. This approach of first doing relief work, then helping people recover, and then going into development is outdated. We don’t have to wait for the emergency to be over to start working on recovery and development. This has to be done layered on each other.
So, for example, how we work is we give cash assistance to the communities so they can buy from the market what they need. It has much more dignity. It has much more choice. And it is much more cost-efficient and cheaper to hand out cash to people so that they can buy from their local area, rather than we buying from other places and then transporting and shipping it there. We also give cash transfers to traders so they can restock what their shop is selling. So, in this way, the market slowly comes up and revives.
We also do other activities, like teaching people to start their own businesses and offering them small seed funding. We also help people form village savings and loan associations. All this supports and strengthens the local economy. There is no shadow of doubt, in my opinion, that the solution lies in helping people get more options for their livelihood and the revival of their markets. This work in South Sudan is really valuable.
Learn more about Mercy Corps' work in South Sudan here.