DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Having spent more than two years serving as USAID’s supervisory program director it’s probably safe to assume Craig Hart has fielded some interesting questions from journalists. Rocked back in his chair at the end of a long conference table today inside the American Embassy in Tanzania’s capitol, Hart, a big guy with an unassuming presence, was met with a question for which he didn’t have an answer. It came at the end of an hour-long briefing covering everything from breastfeeding to rural road development. Credit for the question — “How is the U.S. government shutdown affecting USAID?” — goes to Mary Slosson one of ten journalists traveling the country this week with the International Reporting Project. It’s Hart’s answer that’s most telling however, “We thought you could tell us,” he joked.
Hart and his colleagues, Mary Hobbs and Tom Hobgood, told us that few immediate effects are being felt on the ground here in Africa today, but also told us the future of the organization’s programs if the shutdown should persist long-term remains unclear.
As it stands right now, USAID’s work is considered a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, so they’ll continue operating as an essential government service, and they get their funding in multi-year blocks which will allow them to continue operating at least until the revenue already in their pipeline runs out. In fact, the same is true of the programs USAID funds here in Tanzania. Most have as much as eighteen months of funding already allocated, so they’re not in immediate danger.
However, Hobbs told us there are certain limitations already in place. They can’t begin any new projects, programs, or undertake new initiatives and USAID employees can’t embark on travel that isn’t already planned, for instance.
The fiscal year 2013 budget for the Tanzanian branch of USAID totaled $370 million, about 20% of which is dedicated to Feed the Future, an initiative that aims to combat extreme poverty through agriculture and nutrition. With roughly 75% of Tanzanians employed in agriculture, Hart told us it’s the country’s own commitment to agriculture that earned them a slot in the program’s ranks.
Among the investments Tanzania is making in their own agricultural sector are two programs, Kilimo Kwanza (which translates to Agriculture First) and the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania Centre (SAGCOT). Both aim to increase agricultural productivity, draw youth back to agriculture in Tanzania, and boost rural farmers’ incomes, and it’s in coalition with these programs that USAID’s Feed the Future hopes to accomplish lofty goals in a relatively short period. Currently 42% of Tanzania’s youth are stunted as a result of malnutrition, a figure USAID aims to reduce by 20% by 2016.
While it’s highly unlikely that a long-term government shutdown could threaten USAID’s programs, because the standoff is over budget battles, there’s always the chance programs will be defunded or reduced as part of whatever deal lawmakers strike in an effort to get the government up and running again. For now, all USAID employees can do is stay tuned — just like the rest of us.
“Ask us again in a week or a month,” said Hart, “maybe then we’ll know more.”
Diana Prichard is currently traveling in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Image courtesy U.S. State Department