President Obama launched the opening salvo in the FY2015 budget process with his recently released request, and while some of his foreign assistance proposals seem destined to go the way of the cutting room floor, you certainly can’t fault the request for having a specific point of view.
The FY2015 international affairs budget request is edgy (a word I’ve never used to describe a budget request) in what it chooses to prioritize and push for, given basically flat funding. Indeed the $50 billion request is actually 1 percent below enacted FY2014 levels due to a downsized Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The base International Affairs FY2015 request stands at $44.1 billion with an additional $5.9 billion for the OCO account.
Here are the priorities, highlights, and surprising reversals that stand out the most. There are quite a few, hence the longer post.
- Power Africa powers up. This is the first budget request since the launch of the Power Africa Initiative last June. President Obama wastes no time in seeking to advance this signature initiative, both rhetorically and monetarily. The only actual line item at this point is a $77 million USAID allocation for technical assistance, risk mitigation, and regulatory reforms. But the budget request draws on the resources of the MCC (see more on MCC’s budget request here), OPIC, Export-Import Bank, and USTDA – all of which see increased budgets. If the bipartisan support around the Electrify Africa Act is any indication, funding for expanded energy access in Africa stands a good chance of making it into a final FY2015 appropriations bill.
- OCO decreased in $ and expanded in scope. The OCO request sees a $600 million decrease compared to FY2014 enacted levels. The President’s request also puts forth a big substantive shift by expanding its country scope. In the past, OCO was almost exclusively reserved for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. However, the FY2015 request devotes $1.5 billion for Syria and to support transitions throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This shift away from a singular focus on the “Frontline States” represents a recognition that these three countries can no longer dominate US foreign policy interests.
- Feed the Future lives on. With its contemporary cohorts dead (Global Health Initiative) or under-resourced (Global Climate Change Initiative), the Feed the Future Initiative stands out in the FY2015 budget request with a $1 billion allocation, roughly 5 percent higher than in FY2013. The multi-year Feed the Future effort is due to wrap up in 2015 (at least for the first phase), and the budget request aims to ensure the initiative finishes strong.
- Aid for humanitarian efforts in Syria is up; aid for efforts everywhere else down. The FY2015 budget request singles out humanitarian efforts in and around Syria to the tune of $1.1 billion. (And this doesn’t include additional aid for opposition groups and transition funding in Syria). At the same time, other humanitarian assistance accounts get slashed by over $1.5 billion, with the Migration and Refugee Assistance account getting hit the hardest (a 33 percent cut). Due to large carryover funds, this cut shouldn’t mean a direct hit for humanitarian assistance, but expect some scrambling if any new crises strike.
- Global Health is no longer a sacred cow. For the first time since 2000, the funding request for global health programs has decreased. This year’s global health request still stands at a mighty $8.1 billion (a full 18 percent of the base budget request). But, this level represents a 4.6 percent drop compared to enacted levels last year.
- The aid spotlight swings to Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan in the dark. Aid to Afghanistan grew in this year’s budget request as compared to FY2014 appropriations, increasing 4 percent to $1.4 billion. This increase stands in stark contrast to the 44 percent reduction in aid to Pakistan. This near halving comes as a result of the conclusion of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid bill and the availability of sizeable carry-over funds. Yet, the reduction sends a worrying signal at a time when the US and Pakistani governments are in the midst of a successful Strategic Dialogue process.
- USAID operating expenses, ever the unsexy line item, get a needed boost. The FY2015 budget request proposes a 21.4 percent increase to USAID OE after a painful FY2014 cut. OE funds are necessary in providing adequate levels of personnel to implement, manage, and monitor programs around the world while giving USAID the ability to lead Feed the Future, robustly contribute to Power Africa, and institutionalize its USAID Forward reforms.
- USAID’s Global Development Lab given funding to experiment. Meant to be a legacy of Administrator Raj Shah, the newly founded Global Development Lab is funded at $146.3 million in the budget request. The Lab is born out of a merger of two offices (and their resources): the IDEA office and the Office of Science and Technology. Administrator Shah is due to officially launch the Lab in late March so details are still sparse, but the new entity aligns with the budget request’s emphasis on innovation, technology, and the modernization of development.
- Multilateral institutions get much-need attention. FY 2015 looks to be a catch-up and consolidation year as funding requests are up slightly for the regional development banks, multilateral debt relief programs, and most of the environmental trust funds. The request also offers the first official announcement of the US pledge to IDA-17 and includes funding for the long-delayed IMF quota reform package, which the administration is separately seeking to move more quickly in an emergency Ukraine assistance package.
- Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative makes a big splash, and will most certainly drown. This new initiative – clocking in at $56 billion, with half for defense and half for non-defense programs – is a veritable grab bag of funding allocations. Less than $1 billion is meant for international affairs programs, but these allocations are directed to multiple programs including the MCC, GAFSP, the Global Fund, Feed the Future, USAID’s Global Development Lab, maternal and child health, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. While the extra allocations would no doubt be welcome additions to these entities, the chances of this initiative making its way through Congress are
slim to none.
The budget request does an admirable job of honing in on key initiatives and programs that President Obama sees as transformative in power and scope. It also includes a scaled-back but important development-related reform – a proposal to make food aid more flexible, allowing this assistance to reach an additional two million people each year. Stay tuned to the Rethink blog for updates on how each of these initiatives fare as the FY2015 appropriations process gets underway on the Hill.
For a detailed breakdown of the FY2015 budget request including specific line-item changes, see USGLC’s excellent analysis here.