WASHINGTON — The US-based watchdog Freedom House says Congress should fully fund nearly $48 billion in requests for international foreign affairs, calling it an “invaluable set of tools” for US foreign policy.
In a policy report issued earlier this month, Freedom House said the international affairs budget, which makes up only 1 percent of the overall US budget, can curb repression and “provide a lifeline” to people facing imprisonment, torture or death for speaking out for freedom.
The Freedom House recommendations come as Congress continues to debate a budget and as a deadlock over sequestration continues to freeze budget money. Political analysts say the budget woes of the US, which could lead to decreased funding abroad, could have longterm consequences in countries like Cambodia. Cambodia relies on foreign aid in the non-government sectors to bolster political stability and advance basic rights and freedoms.
Sarah Trister, who authored the report, is the manager of congressional affairs at Freedom House. She told VOA Khmer recently that US government funding for civil society organizations, such as human rights groups, democracy advocates, election observers and others, has a huge impact on the development of a country. But that funding has to keep coming, and it has to provide local groups with some measure of financial security, she said.
“Supporting civil society requires creative programming that responds to the needs of local organizations on the ground, but also relies on regular investment with a focus on long-term development,” she said. “If funding levels are slashed, or future funding is in doubt, it’s difficult for groups to make plans and implement long-term programming.”
The administration of President Barack Obama has made Asia a focal point of its international diplomacy, amid growing influence of China over the region. In Southeast Asia, that has meant renewed efforts to support Cambodia, where China holds much sway.
Trister said that funding for democracy and human rights in Asia is part of that foreign policy. “However, it is up to Congress to fund those programs, and there are widely divergent versions of the Fiscal Year 2014 spending bills in the House and Senate,” she said. “Congress should keep in mind that democracy and human rights programs are relatively inexpensive to operate, and provide great returns by helping to build stable democratic partners that cooperate with the US on a wide-range of issues including national security, the economy, trade and diplomacy.”
And while many budgets are tightening, some political observers say Cambodia might actually get more money.
“People in Congress are extremely unhappy with the regime in Phnom Penh,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told VOA Khmer. “And there are the discussions about the decreasing some aid, but increasing aid on democracy, good governance, and rule of law. I don’t know the outcome because it is political, and things can happen in politics, but that’s the direction it is going right now.”
Trister looked closely at funding requests under the heading “Governing Justly and Democratically,” which is US money set aside for freedom and democracy objectives.
The Obama administration is asking for $10.9 million in such funding for Cambodia programs, an increase of nearly 50 percent over 2012, Trister says in her report. “Freedom House is pleased to see that the majority of the increase falls under the civil society heading, which will empower groups on the ground to advocate for democratic reforms and protections for human rights,” she wrote.
In Asia overall, GJD requests amount to $104.69 million in the Asia Pacific, a bump of 25 percent over 2012, she wrote.
John Ciorciari, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, told VOA Khmer that Congress should think about the long-term consequences of reduced budgets overseas.
“I think it is safe to say, however, that human rights and democracy programs are going to be challenging to fund in this fiscal environment,” he said. “That makes it extremely important that the State Department, USAID and other concerned agencies within the executive, as well as concerned members of the Congress, make a strong push for the protection of those programs in the year ahead.”
The quality of the programs matters, he said. But so too does consistency in funding them. “Building sustainable civil society organizations takes time, especially in countries where the political space for NGOs has been small and where capacity is limited,” he said. “Civil society groups cannot grow roots and build coherent strategies if donors’ funds are intermittent and unpredictable.”
Shihoko Goto, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, said US aid for capacity building should be seen as a strategic endeavor that is in the US’s national interest. Money for trade can help economic growth in other countries, for example, but it can also boost demand for US goods and services.
“Such arguments for capacity-building aid, though, are harder to win amid the sequestration, as well as the political divide on the Hill,” she said. “It should be noted, though, that private groups and non-profits are playing an ever-increasing role in providing aid, from humanitarian relief to education as well as in capacity-building. Often, aid from USAID as well as UN-related agencies is dwarfed by non-governmental assistance.”
And the US is not the only provider of development money, she added. “Indeed, there is a race among Asian nations, notably China, Japan and South Korea, to provide further aid to developing nations,” she said. “This is particularly striking in Burma at the moment. For recipient countries, this is actually good news, as a race among donors can allow them to leverage their position further.”
Adams, at Human Rights Watch, said that no matter what, the US needs to continue its commitment to supporting civil society in Asia.
“The funding that the US provides is absolutely essential for groups to monitor what governments are doing, to keep governments honest, to fight corruption, and to stand up for women’s rights, for victim and human right abuses,” he said. “The congress should not cut foreign assistance, which is helping Asia and Southeast Asia. Over decades, we have seen that generations of activists and even politicians benefit from the funding.”