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Trump to slash Middle East aid cash as disasters mount

Aid for Yemen is set to fall 82 percent from 2016 levels, while Tunisia faces a 61 percent cut under Trump budget plans
Yemen is on the brink of a famine, as a now two-year war cripples the country's infrastructure (AFP)

The US foreign aid budget, if it passes, will see a massive reduction in aid to parts of the Middle East, in particular Tunisia and Yemen, which is facing a devastating humanitarian crisis.

In 2016, Tunisia received $141m, but for 2018 looks set to receive just $54m.

For Yemen – where a Saudi-led war has crippled infrastructure, created a near-famine and sparked a cholera epidemic – aid looks set to fall 82 percent, from $203m in 2016 to just $35m in 2018.

Israel's aid package – which includes military assistance – remains stable, at $3.1bn between 2016 and 2018, and Egypt's decreases from $1.4bn to $1.38bn.

We see many aid budgets taking a hit as governments who traditionally had funded humanitarian assistance are prioritising other things

- Sara Tesorieri, an advocacy and policy adviser for the NRC

Sara Tesorieri, an advocacy and policy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told MEE that of four near-famine situations around the world this year, the situation in Yemen is "far and away the most alarming". Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria also face famine.

"We see many aid budgets taking a hit as governments who traditionally had funded humanitarian assistance are prioritising other things," Tesorieri, said. "That's very clear."

She stated that current humanitarian needs are not being met, even before such a massive decrease in foreign aid.

At the beginning of 2017, the UN and partners launched an appeal for $2.1bn for Yemen, to provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people.

Yemen assistance only one-third funded

But so far the campaign has only been funded by a third, and all the while, needs are continuing to increase, Tesorieri said.

When the 2017 plan was formulated, "We believed 18 million needed some form of humanitarian assistance, and now it's 20 million," said Tesorieri, who has recently been in Yemen.

More than seven million Yemenis do not know when they will next eat, and more than half of all health facilities are not functioning, the UN said.

At least 300,000 people have contracted cholera, the ICRC reported on Monday, with around 7,000 new cases each day.

The humanitarian assistance situation, Tesorieri said is: "Even more disappointing because we see no slowdown in the conflict; in fact we see some form of escalation, and that is conducted by powers on both sides."

"And conducting a war is incredibly expensive, so they can find the money for that, but not for staving off cholera or famine."

The war in Yemen has rendered at least 2 million people internally displaced (AFP)

Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the region, and faced "enormous levels of humanitarian needs" even before the current conflict broke out in early 2015, according to the UN.

The war, which has seen a Saudi-led coalition bombard the country on behalf of the president, Abd Rabbuh Hadi against the Houthi rebels, has killed at least 8,000 people, according to the World Health Organisation.

Donald Trump's budget, for the fiscal year beginning in October, is part of the "America first" policy on which he campaigned, and would cut $19bn, or 32 percent, from the US aid and diplomacy budget.

Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, stressed that given the current humanitarian situation, such aid was vital for saving lives.

"A confluence of tragedies is playing out across Africa and the Middle East, and humanitarian needs are only increasing in hotspots like cholera-hit Yemen," Watson told MEE.

"In Iraq, even with the Mosul war over, rebuilding will take many years and come at great cost."

Baghdad received $405m in US aid in 2016, and looks set to receive $347m in 2018, if the budget passes.

A confluence of tragedies is playing out across Africa and the Middle East, and humanitarian needs are only increasing

- Ewan Watson, ICRC spokesman

"The US government has consistently been the ICRC's biggest donor, regardless of the political affiliation of the US administration," Watson said.

"We are very grateful to the government and US taxpayers for their tremendous and robust support for life-saving humanitarian aid, and we view this as a symbol of the goodwill and generosity of the American people."

Jeremy Konydynk, director for foreign assistance at USAID in the Obama administration, has said that the proposed budget not just threatens lives but damages the US's position in the world.

"Humanitarian aid is lifesaving assistance, so cuts like these will kill people," he wrote in the Guardian in May.

"This budget will harm tens of millions of lives to save fractions of pennies. It is gratuitously cruel and unbecoming of the deep American traditions of helping those in need around the world."

But it looks as if the budget itself will face an uphill struggle.

Lives at risk, US soft power damaged

Some of Trump's Republican peers have heavily criticised the proposed budget.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for diplomacy and foreign aid spending, said that Trump's proposal to cut the diplomacy and aid budget by one third would "gut soft power".

"If we implemented this budget, you'd have to retreat from the world or put a lot of people at risk," Graham said. "This budget is not going to go anywhere."

Congress sets the federal government budget, and Republicans who control both houses and Democrats have said they do not support such drastic cuts.

Iraq, which is also experiencing a humanitarian crisis, also faces budget cuts (AFP)

In terms of Tunisia, Mabrouka M'Barek, a post-revolutionary MP in Tunis who sat on the finance committee, said the US president might be attempting to recoup some of former president Barack Obama's generosity.

"In its effort to put America first, the Trump administration's logic might be to cut 60 percent of the aid to Tunisia as a way to compensate for the subsidy that was a courtesy of the Obama administration," M'Barek, who is now a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told MEE.

Between 2012 and 2015, the US guaranteed $1.5bn in loans to Tunisia, but the burgeoning democracy was exempt from paying a fee to offset the risk, M'Barek explained.

The Tunisian prime minister, Youssef Chahed, is in Washington this week, in an attempt to dissuade the Trump administration from the budget cuts to Tunis, which would also affect military aid.

And in an article last week, Chahed urged the US to stand by Tunisia.

"We hope that we can count on the steady support of our strategic partners in the United States … For America and all nations with a stake in the success of Tunisia's democratic experiment, betting on Tunisia is betting on the right side in history."

Trump doesn't get moved by Tunisia's story of exceptional democratic experience

- Mabrouka M'Barek, former Tunisian MP

But M'Barek is not convinced that Chahed's efforts will pay off.

"The Trump administration might increase the aid budget but if they do they will start asking Tunisia to pay a fee for the outstanding guarantee loan (about $30m). I think the best Chahed can do is get a new guaranteed loan, the interest rate is low (1.6 percent)

"It is a hard sell for Chahed," she added, "as Trump doesn't get moved by Tunisia's story of exceptional democratic experience and beside, POTUS is so unpredictable."                 

"I am afraid Trump looks at international relations through a lens of business profitability and thus he doesn't see how he can benefit from tiny Tunisia politically speaking."

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