Denied! Witholding of UNFPA Funds Matters

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Denied! Witholding of UNFPA Funds Matters

Anika Rahman

At the dawn of a new year, women around the world still rely on crucial funds from UNFPA for health care and family planning. But our current administration continues to withhold the money.

Many, many times in this forum I've lamented that while the U.S. Congress allocates a contribution to UNFPA, the current Administration withholds the funds, making us the only country in the world that has ever declined to support UNFPA for reasons that are political rather than financial. Ever wonder where the money goes?

Much as I wish it did, the money doesn't just sit in a bank account, waiting for a change of heart or a more supportive President. Most of it reverts to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for global health and child survival programs.

The omnibus appropriations bill that passed Congress last month earmarks $40 million for UNFPA. This is a $6 million increase over last year's allocation, which is progress, except for that whole withholding problem.

USAID provides international assistance – which among other things includes contraception, safe motherhood initiatives, HIV prevention – in about 100 countries that are strategically important to the United States. For example, since the 1970s, Israel and Egypt have long been the largest recipients of U.S. aid. Not surprisingly, recently, Iraq has received a huge amount of foreign assistance from our government. Our government also invests in global health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS. (I will discuss at some other points the restrictions we place on these funds, particularly the requirement that one-third of our HIV/AIDS funds be focused on abstinence.) The theory being that the healthier a nation is and the better living standards it has, the better it is for its citizens and for us all. And the more educated the people, the better their chances of a government that recognizes human rights.

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This is all very necessary and important. But here's why it's important for the United States to contribute to UNFPA in addition to all the work it does through USAID.

UNFPA works in about 150 countries based on the needs on the grounds, not the political priorities of powerful nations. So the women of Niger get international assistance because their government requests it. Why? Unselfish motivation: all people are entitled to human rights and a basic standard of living. Selfish motivation: when women are healthy, more economically stable and more able to participate in society, the society evolves to the benefit of all of us.

UNFPA's funding is very much based on this idea of global community. In 2006, Niger – the country ranked last on the economic development index – contributed $5,000, which goes into the pot with the contributions from all over the world, including countries like the Netherlands which contributed almost $70 million.

From this pot of money, UNFPA supports change from the bottom up and the top down. For example, part of the money goes to support programs created and implemented by local women to address challenges within their own community. So, in Niger, UNFPA funds Dimol, a non-profit created by Salamatou Traoré (whom I've mentioned before) to support fistula patients and prevent fistula at the community level.

That pot of money also funds UNFPA's Campaign to End Fistula which, among other things, sponsors trainings where the small number of doctors who can do fistula repair, train their peers from all over Africa and Asia.

And because UNFPA has the legitimacy of the United Nations, it can also work with governments to promote women's access to health care and to implement laws and policies that support girl's education or prevent violence against women. UNFPA is the watchdog for the world's women, ensuring that their particular needs are considered when international aid is established in the wake of a natural disaster.

As a multilateral organization, UNFPA's work is not subject to the policies of one particular country. So, for example, condom distribution is based on what the government of a country believes its people need, not what the government of the United States believes another country's citizens need.

Perhaps the best way to explain the importance of a U.S. contribution to UNFPA, even while our government contributes a much larger amount for similar programs through USAID, is UNFPA's family planning program in Iran. It is unlikely that Iran would accept a similar program funded by USAID. Most of us would agree that while we may dislike the policies of the Iranian government, we support the rights of Iranian women.

So, as we close one year with hopes and aspirations for the next, let's bring peace and prosperity by continuing to believe in women and investing in their wellbeing-universally and without bias.