I sat in the dim light of a Christian church with walls of mud and a roof of corrugated metal, as Alaakiir Ajok told her story. This was last September, 19 months after fighting had erupted around her home in South Sudan. Ajok, a widow, ran for the Uganda border. She found refuge in a settlement called Nyumanzi, where she was living with two of her four children. The other two disappeared in the chaos of conflict: she ran one way, they ran another. This happens when families flee for their lives. Thousands of people, mostly women and kids, flee across the border into Uganda every day. As of this week, Uganda was sheltering more than 761,027 South Sudanese.
Ajok hadn’t heard a word of her two missing kids since that day in February 2014. She didn’t know whether they were dead or alive, had crossed the border or not, or even where to begin looking. Meanwhile, she was focused on keeping her other two kids safe, sheltered, fed and enrolled in school. “My future plan is for these two children,” she told me, “so they can go to school and learn, so they can have a future and not be the same as me, because I never went to school.”
Ajok and her kids subsist on rations distributed by the World Food Program, and every month, she said, she would sell a portion of her sorghum for a bit of money to pay her children’s school fees. But when we met, WFP had just cut her rations in half, due to dramatic funding shortages. After that, Ajok had no sorghum to spare—which meant she had no money, and her son stopped going to school.
That was five months ago. On Tuesday, President Trump announced a proposal to cut the US State Department and USAID budgets by 30 percent or more—words from his mouth that could take the food from the mouths of millions. The proposal immediately met Congressional pushback, and there are many mathematical, moral and political reasons such cuts won’t come to fruition. But still, the United States is by far the world’s largest contributor to humanitarian assistance in general, and the WFP in particular. International aid workers have been on edge ever since the election.
But what does it actually mean when foreign aid is cut? WFP spokespeople said this week they know no details of Trump’s proposal and how it might affect any individual country. But we already know how a shortage in funding affects individuals. Let’s go back to Nyumanzi: At the time I visited, US foreign aid paid for 52 percent of the food and money that sustained refugees like Ajok and her children. Since then, the number of refugees has escalated amid continuing violence and, now, famine. WFP’s needs in Uganda have doubled in the last six months, according to Lydia Wamala, communications officer for WFP in Uganda. “We have a funding shortfall of $60.5 million through to July, and needs have been rising quickly,” she told me via email last week, before Trump’s proposal came out. “We now require around $14 million per month to meet the food needs of refugees in Uganda.”
The United States is WFP’s largest donor. If US contributions to WFP in Uganda drop for any reason, that could very well mean less food for refugees like Ajok and her kids. “So far we have managed to avoid making further cuts,” Wamala said. “But just barely, and we cannot rule out having to make additional reductions unless we receive significant new funding.”
Many argue that the United States can’t afford to feed refugees of foreign wars; that Americans should help their own before helping the world. It’s true—almost 16 million households in the US are considered “food insecure.”
But consider these two points: just 1 percent of the US federal budget currently goes to foreign aid (only 1 in 20 Americans polled in 2015 knew this; respondents on average thought foreign aid was closer to 26 percent of the whole federal budget).
Point two: research shows that US foreign aid benefits American economic and security interests. How is this so, in the case of refugees? Studies show that refugees, in the long term, benefit the countries that take them in. But when they first arrive, those displaced populations inevitably have destabilizing effects on societies and economies: swift influxes of people with sudden, desperate needs for food, shelter, healthcare, education and more. Alleviating those pressures is “in everybody’s interests. It’s in global interests, it’s certainly in America’s interests,” according to Roger Zetter, emeritus professor and former director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. If the United States isn’t going to open its doors to new refugees, then investing in countries that do can result in “a kind of containment policy,” he said, which is what President Trump seems to want.
In other words, if the US funds refugee programs in countries like Uganda, those refugees are likely to stay in Uganda—and not seek refuge in the US.
“I think we have a moral responsibility to take in refugees,” J. Edward Taylor, a University of California Davis professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, told me, echoing Zetter’s sentiments. But a welcome mat is not what Trump is offering. So, Taylor said, it should be in the Trump administration’s interests to enable other countries to better serve the people in need. “Support WFP and UNHCR,” and governments like Uganda’s. That’s in America’s best interests, he said.
Back in Uganda, right before Ajok and I said our good-byes, I asked if she had a message for the American people.
“I thank the American community for what it has donated. What we need is to support the life of our children.” And she had a request: “If it is possible, can you build us a school? A secondary school?” After grade 7, the children in her settlement have nowhere to go, she said. The nearest secondary school is 30 kilometers away. “So if it is possible for you, the American people, we really need your help, to join your hands with the Ugandan community,” she said. “We thank you in the name of Almighty God for the help that you are giving to the people here. The refugees.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative supported the reporting from Uganda in this story.