Fears over US aid freeze

  • Malawi’s social sector could collapse under Trump’s foreign budget cut proposal

United States (US) President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut global civilian spending by a third has alarmed some analysts who fear a resultant collapse of Malawi’s broader social sector.

Among the fears—particularly from local health and education stakeholders—are that the proposal, if the US Congress approves it, could adversely affect HIV and Aids programmes, malaria control, training of health workers, and support to 3.4 million learners in primary schools across Malawi.

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Trump’s 2018 spending plan to Congress has slashed the State Department and International Aid budget from $39.7 billion in 2017 to $ 28.2 billion, representing a 29.1 percent decrease.

This includes a budget proposing zeroing out global family planning support mainly provided through the United States Agency for International Development (USaid).

The US—Malawi’s largest bilateral donor that forks out at least $400 million annually into the country—is currently one of the major sources of funding for family planning in Malawi, a country that is grappling with a rising population crisis.

Limited resources and a larger population puts pressures on the resources that exist. More people means more mouths to feed, more health care and education services to provide, and so forth.

In just over 40 years Malawi’s population has increased from 4 million people in 1966 to 13.1 million in 2008 to nearly 18 million today.

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The population is expected to continue to increase steadily given today’s high fertility rate of 5.7 children per woman. Even if the fertility rate declines from the 2010 level of 5.7 to 4.6 by 2020, the population will still grow to 26 million in 2030, according to Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

The White House said that the proposed cuts to family planning—and foreign aid more broadly—would save money that should go to other budget areas such as defence and to help realise Trump’s “America First Policy.”

On the proposed aid cut for its programme beyond the five-year country development cooperation strategy (MDGS) which ends in September this year, USaid Malawi referred us to the US Embassy.

But Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) executive director George Jobe, in a telephone interview on Wednesday, asked for the prioritisation in funding to specific programmes such HIV and Aids, malaria and health research, among others.

“There is a lot at stake with reduced Usaid funding. The agency has been supporting HIV/Aids programmes specifically in the provision of ARVs. Any reduction of this funding will put a million lives on the line. Usaid also supports HIV awareness programmes, procurement of malaria drugs, recruitment of about 500 health workers and training of medical personnel including research. These are all vital programmes that require adequate funding and the proposed funding cuts should be a very worrying development,” he said.

Jobe added that USaid support cuts across sectors that are interlinked to health.

He said: “If programmes that are funded by USaid such as food and nutrition, water and sanitation are equally affected, that would also boomerang on health. It is a precarious situation that we are facing.”

On the education front, Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) executive director Benedicto Kondowe said there is a horde of programmes in the education sector funded by USaid which had been pivotal in raising the country’s education standards.

“We are well aware how USaid funded programmes such as the National Reading Programme has improved literacy in the country. Any reduction to such a programme would mean that the gains achieved won’t be sustained. This is a five-year programme and as such there is need to maintain the level of funding.

Said Kondowe, “Through USaid, there have also been programmes to procure text books in primary schools. We already have a huge shortage of teaching and learning materials. I can also cite education programme strategies and curriculum development initiatives which could suffer.”

According to CNN, the US government, which is the largest provider of family planning services in the world, had already reduced funding towards sexual reproductive health (SRH).

The July last year publication quoted Jennifer Kates, vice-president and director of Global Health and HIV/Aids at the Kaiser Family Foundation who said: “There is a lot at stake. The US is the largest provider of family planning in the world and has been a real leader in providing support for many low- and middle-income countries,” it said.

The CNN report said the US foreign aid cuts could be a ‘death sentence’ to women in Malawi.

“Now public health officials, aid professionals and doctors in Malawi fear it could get even worse. The impoverished East African nation could be one of the hardest hit in Africa by proposed cuts to US foreign aid,” reads the report.

The CNN report says new research suggests that there were many as 141 000 abortions in Malawi in 2015—most of them in clandestine situations. It said the rate of maternal deaths in Malawi is among the highest globally and illegal abortions are a significant reason.

But the US Embassy in Lilongwe through its public affairs officer Edward Monster played down any dramatic changes in the support the US government renders to Malawi.

Said Monster: “With fiscal year 2017 funds, the US Government will continue to invest in Malawi at levels similar to recent years. While the fiscal year 2017 budget is anticipated to vary in some degree from recent years. It is normal for budgets to vary from year to year. We do not foresee this having major impacts on programming over 2018.”

He said the US Congress had the authority to determine the U.S. government’s budget.

Ministry of Finance spokesperson Davis Sado said on Tuesday in an emailed response that the ministry has not been notified of any changes in support from the US government.

“As [Ministry of] Finance, it will be too early to comment on that as we do not have the communication yet,” he said.

Information from the US Embassy indicates that in 2016, US bilateral assistance in Malawi totalled nearly $400 million.

Out of this over $170 million was dedicated to the health sector; over $100 million to economic growth and agriculture while over $17 million was allocated  to the education sector and smaller amounts went to governance and security sectors.

According to Monster, the US Government assisted 3.4 million learners in the 2016 fiscal year.

He said in schools supported by the US government, girls’ transition rate to secondary school improved from 39 percent to 47 percent during the 2015/2016 fiscal year.

The country is also currently benefitting from US’s $350 million Millennium Challenge Account (MCC) investment to improve the energy sector. The ongoing five-year compact is designed to improve the power generation and transmission infrastructure. The compact closes in September this year.

However, Malawi has missed out on a second compact due to poor governance and failure to tame corruption.

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