The Project on Middle East Democracy : The Potential Impact of President Trump's Foreign Affairs Budget for the Middle East

The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) has released a report detailing the impact President Trump’s proposed budget will have on the Middle East and North Africa. Overall, the Trump administration’s budget request for FY18 proposes a 30% cut to foreign affairs funding. The budget is indicative of the Trump administration’s focus on the use of military force, with 80 percent of all foreign aid marked for military assistance. Humanitarian assistance faces a four percent funding cut, even as a number of conflicts spiral out of control and famine and disease ravage nations such as Yemen. The current budget requests only $35 million for Yemen, a nation that is currently dealing with massive food insecurity and the worst cholera crisis in the world. This represents a 37 percent decrease from FY17. According to the report, a decline in spending “may reduce the United States’ ability to respond to Yemen’s growing crisis.”

President Trump's budget requests $50 million globally for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor (DRL). DRL is tasked with advancing human rights, civil society, workers rights, and supporting the rule of law. DRL is typically described as handling the:

US officials also describe DRL as working to build the “demand side” of democracy by encouraging citizens and civil society to engage with and demand accountability and responsiveness from government institutions. These efforts complement the governance work of USAID to build the “supply side” by strengthening government institutions.

The president’s budget request proposes the lowest annual budget for DRL global programming in over a decade, totalling just $50 million. Though the budget recognizes the relationship between lacking democratic attributes and the spread of extremism, the budget request does not even mention DRL’s rapid response programming that promotes democracy to countries in transition. This is troubling as DRL programming, along with USAID development programs, present some of the most effective avenues for providing aid to Yemen:

DRL officials describe the bureau’s comparative advantage over USAID, MEPI, and INL programming in the region as including the ability to do discreet, thematic regional programs, as most of its funding is not tied to country-specific accounts. DRL often takes the lead in supporting local NGOs in restrictive environments, as USAID and INL programs often rely more heavily on close working relationships with host governments.

Yet, DRL still faces significant cuts under the president’s budget request. A decline in funding for DRL could have a dramatic long-term impact on the quality and availability of humanitarian and democracy assistance reaching Yemen during the conflict and in the immediate post-conflict context. Signals from Congress do offer hope, however, as “[i]n recent years, Congress has steadily increased overall funding under the Democracy Fund heading, which is divided between DRL and USAID/DCHA.” As Congress holds the purse strings it is likely they will appropriate funds high above the president’s budget request, although the newly released House bill for State and Foreign Operations appropriations still proposes a significant cut to foreign assistance, which has traditionally only represented one percent of the total annual budget.  Regardless, the President’s emphasis on military and security assistance in the Middle East reinforces a worrying trend away from democracy promotion and constructive diplomatic engagement for reform and development in the Arab world. Overall the president’s budget shows a blatant disregard for “the role of domestic repression by authoritarian allies in fueling discontent, radicalization, terrorism, and violent conflict.”