Global Policy Forum

Foreign Aid Bill to Fund Controversial UN Agencies

January 27, 2004

The massive $373 billion spending bill approved by Congress last week and signed into law by President Bush Friday will bring the U.S. back into one UN agency after nearly 20 years and calls for funding another from which the administration has withheld funds for the past two years.

The omnibus bill, which includes $24 billion in international affairs spending, including foreign aid, provides $71 million dollars for U.S. dues to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2004 and for the last quarter of 2003 to ensure that Washington can run for a seat on UNESCO's policy-making executive board. The bill also includes $34 million for the UN Population FUnd, with which Washington, and particularly the Bush administration, has had troubled relations.

Under strong pressure from the anti-abortion movement, the administration has withheld Congressionally mandated appropriations for UNFPA for two years, citing controversial charges that the organization provides indirect support for China's family-planning program, which anti-abortion activists claim uses forced abortions and sterilizations. The administration has not yet said whether it intends to withhold the money for 2004. The total foreign aid bill came to $17.55 billion, nearly $1.3 billion below Bush's initial request of a year ago, but also a six percent increase over spending levels for fiscal year 2003, which ended September 30. The bill does not, however, include any of the $89 billion approved for Iraq and Afghanistan late last year.

The largest single allocation in the FY 2004 bill was $3 billion for Israel in mostly military assistance, followed by Egypt, which will receive some $2.1 billion. The World Bank's soft-loan facility, the International Development Association is to receive nearly $1 billion.

Under the total spending bill, the United States will spend a record $2.4 billion this year on the fight against the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, with virtually all of the funding targeted on sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. Of that total, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria will receive $500 million, $300 million more than Bush had requested.

The Fund, designed to distribute assistance quickly to proven programs, has been starved for cash since it launched operations two years ago, and the increased U.S. contribution--while still far short of what public-health experts believe is necessary to cope with the AIDS epidemic, in particular--will help boost its fast-diminishing resources. AIDS is currently killing about three million people a year, nearly 80 percent of them in Africa. The bill provides some $321 million for UN programs, more than a third of which ($120 million) is earmarked for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The inclusion of $71 million for UNESCO marks the fulfillment of Bush's pledge to the U.N. in September 2002--in a speech devoted mainly to rallying UN support for a confrontational policy with Iraq--to return to an agency from which the Ronald Reagan administration had withdrawn 20 years ago. Many analysts saw Bush's unexpected commitment as a bow to multilateralism at a time when Washington appeared to be preparing to wage war; if necessary, unilaterally.

The Reagan administration originally ordered the pullout to protest what it called UNESCO's ''anti-U.S.'' politicization and ''extravagant budgetary mismanagement'' under then-director-general Amadou Mahtar M'Bow of Senegal. ''UNESCO has extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion,'' the State Department charged at the time.

Washington was particularly incensed about the agency's advocacy of a ''New World Information and Communication Order'' (NWICO), an effort to provide more balance in the flow and content of news between developed and developing countries. Major U.S. media argued that NWICO would harm press freedom and launched a campaign against it, led by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) and the neo-conservative human rights group, Freedom House, and against UNESCO as one of its sponsors.

After Washington's withdrawal, Britain and Singapore, citing similar reasons, also left the agency, effectively crippling the agency's financial health, even as it had abandoned its advocacy for NWICO by the late 1980s. Britain, however, returned in 1997. The administration of former President Bill Clinton stated several times it believed UNESCO had reformed sufficiently to warrant Washington's return but never made a formal request to the Republican-dominated Congress.

Lobbied by Reagan's former secretary of state, George Shultz, as well as numerous U.S. scientific, educational and cultural organizations that had opposed the U.S. withdrawal in the first place, Bush decided to return and late last year nominated a Louise V. Oliver, a right-wing political activist, as his ambassador there. Some of his aides have argued that UNESCO can be used effectively to promote more pro-western values in the educational systems of Arab and Islamic countries, a priority in the Bush administration's "war on terrorism."

The president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund, former Sen. Timothy Wirth, Monday applauded Congress for fully funding Bush's request. "UNESCO plays a crucial role in promoting American values such as education, democracy and human rights around the world," he said. "The organization has been reformed, and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning."

Congress' approval of the $34 million for UNFPA in 2004 was also widely hailed by family-planning and women's rights activists who called on Bush to honor Congress' decision and break with his past decisions to withhold the aid. UNFPA, which has vehemently denied that it supports any of China's coercive programs, is the world's most important provider of family-planning assistance and its work has long been given high marks by U.S. public-health experts.

The agency's denials were backed up by a number of independent investigations, including a delegation of Muslim, Roman Catholic and Jewish experts and ethicists who traveled to China last year.

But Bush, who has justified his decision to withhold the money on a novel reading of the 1984 Kemp-Kasten amendment that bans U.S. funding for programs that support "coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization, has strong political ties to the anti-abortion movement. Neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush ever contended that UNFPA violated the Kemp-Kasten amendment. Instead, they simply subtracted the amount of money UNFPA was spending in China from the total contribution to UNFPA approved by Congress.

UNFPA's Congressional supporters succeeded this year in changing the language of the appropriation to make it more difficult for Bush to deny the funding. Instead of simply not spending the money, as he has been able to do in the past, the new law requires him to make an explicit finding that UNFPA is violating the Kemp-Kasten amendment. "Unlike last year, President Bush will be unable to quietly defund UNFPA without fanfare," said Craig Lasher, senior policy analyst at Population Action International. "We hope that he will take really serious look at the facts on the ground, and if he does, we're confident that UNFPA will get the money that the United States Congress has appropriated."




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