Facing budget cuts, advocates fight to save international aid

by Joshua J. McElwee

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A mother seeks treatment for her malnourished child at at Our Lady of Apostles Hospital in Akwanga, Nigeria, Sept. 2, 2010. The House of Representatives' Feb. 18 continuing resolution would cut U.S. funding for aid programs that assist people around the world. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Catholic advocates are urging their grassroots base in dioceses across the country to help save U.S.-funded programs that aid the world's poor. Such programs face funding cuts of more than 25 percent as Congress debates how to save money and reduce the federal deficit.

The problem with the budget resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month isn’t that it makes cuts to programs that help needy people around the world, two prominent Catholic advocates told social ministry leaders on a nationwide conference call yesterday.

The problem is that the cuts are “disproportionate” and don’t “share the sacrifice with the rest of society,” the advocates said.

The call, which was hosted by Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. bishops’ conference, came as Congress continues to debate the 2011 federal budget amid fears of a government shutdown if a new spending plan is not approved.

Because Congress didn't approve a full-year budget plan last fall, it must pass and President Obama must sign a "continuing resolution" to keep the federal government operating until the end of the fiscal year. The deadline is March 4.

The House of Representatives approved a continuing resolution Feb. 18 that cuts $61 billion from nearly every federal agency over the next seven months. While that adds up to an approximate 2.6 percent cut in the overall budget, the plan mandates “a nearly 27 percent cut in poverty-focused international assistance,” Steve Colecchi, the director of the U.S. bishops’ office of international justice and peace, said on the call.

Those cuts will have a “disproportionate impact on programs that impact poor and vulnerable people both at home and abroad,” he said.

The House’s continuing resolution for the rest of fiscal year 2011 would slash funding for international disaster assistance and food for education by more than 50 percent, and cut a variety of other programs aimed especially at the world’s poorest nations, Colecchi said on the call.

The Senate has yet to vote on the House’s budget plan. The House is expected to vote today on a stopgap measure that would keep the government running until March 18.

Colecchi, and Bill O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Services’ senior director for advocacy, mentioned several times on the call that they weren’t opposed to a discussion of spending cuts to international aid -- they just want, as O’Keefe put it, “everything to be on the table.”

“There is no shared sacrifice” in this budget, said Bill O’Keefe. “There is a sacrifice by the poor, but there is not a sacrifice by the rest of society.”

Titled “Catholics confront global poverty,” the call also came after nearly 300 Catholic social justice leaders met in Washington two weeks ago for the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, an annual affair co-sponsored by more than a dozen national Catholic organizations engaged in social ministry, including several offices of the bishops’ conference.

On the last day of the event, Feb. 15, those assembled were sent out for a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill.

On the conference call yesterday, Colecchi and O’Keefe said that in their meetings with Hill staffers and Congress members, the social ministry leaders noticed a key trend: Many of the newly elected members of Congress just aren’t aware of the impact U.S. international aid has in countries around the world.

Out of the large number of new members voted-in during last year’s election, “no one was elected on international issues,” said O’Keefe. “The new folks are coming to it pretty cold.”

That lack of knowledge gives Catholics across the country an important role in framing the budget debate for their Congressional representatives, said the CRS head.

Catholics need to call their Congressional offices to tell them that aid is an “effective tool for helping the poorest people in the poorest countries address basic human needs,” he said. “Mention your time in the Peace Corps or as a Maryknoll missioner. Tell them your stories.”

Those stories can have a significant impact this week, said O’Keefe.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn...I know that if we get ourselves organized and express our deep moral concern to our legislators some of them are going to reconsider.”

[Joshua McElwee is an NCR staff writer.]

For stories related to the budget debate, see NCR's coverage of the recent Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington. The gathering, which brought together over 300 social ministry leaders, is an annual affair co-sponsored by more than a dozen national Catholic organizations engaged in social ministry, including several offices of the bishops’ conference:

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