Refugee Crisis Soaks Up Foreign Aid Funds

Sixty million people fled their homes last year as migrants, refugees and displaced persons, overwhelming the global humanitarian system created after World War II to cope with survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.

"We are entering a new stage - no one knows where it is going," said the former senor US official in charge of foreign aid, Andrew Natsios.

Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Algerians, Moroccans and others -- fleeing war, persecution and poverty -- have paralyzed governments from Greece to Germany as the numbers continue to climb: one million fled to Europe without papers last year and 100,000 more arrived in the first two months of this year.

Many thousands are stuck in Greece - which they can reach by a three or four mile dash in small boats from Turkey. But nations further north such as Hungary, Macedonia, Austria and Croatia don't want the migrants to enter, fearing a costly burden on their economies as well as a clash of culture between Muslim migrants and Christian Europeans.

This was highlighted in Cologne, Germany on New Year's Eve when hundreds of Arabs and other migrants attacked 1,000 women, groping them sexually.

Natsios, former administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told a Washington audience of experts Feb. 23, that the migrants "are numbers not seen since World War II."

He said the biggest portion, some 10 million internally displaced or refugee Syrians, are fleeing a five-year civil war driven by three great former empires vying for influence in Syria: Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Millions more are fleeing their homes in Africa due to Islamic fundamentalism such as Boko Haram in Nigeria; and due to ethnic rivalry in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Burundi.

"The order since World War II is unraveling," said Natsios.

He was particularly concerned that wealthy nations have cut back on aid donations, perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the cost as well as the expectation that today's refugees will likely spend up to 25 years in camps, dependent on food and other international aid.

Natsios also said he worries that the US government will pull the plug and end funding for 15 agricultural research stations around the world. These facilities spawned the 1960s Green Revolution that created miracle wheat - tripling production per acre. The cut in agricultural research comes as the world needs to double food production by 2050 to deal with the growing world population.

He called for improving and expanding US foreign aid to deal with humanitarian crises, both from natural disasters such as drought, tsunamis and storms as well as from man-made crises such as wars and ethnic cleansing.

US foreign assistance is dispensed not just only through the $22 billion USAID annual budget but by billions more spent by the departments of Defense, State, Treasury, Commerce, Health, and a dozen other agencies.

Natsios also offered a fierce defense of the more than $115 billion in U.S. aid spent in Afghanistan by all US agencies since 2002, even though the special inspector general for Afghanistan recently reported that much of what aid built is ether crumbling or rendered unusable due to conflict and corruption.

"The risk of fraud, waste, and abuse of reconstruction funds in Afghanistan is growing, even as the ability to exercise effective oversight is increasingly constrained" since most U.S. forces began to withdraw in 2014, said the inspector general.

"AID did not fail in Afghanistan," said Natsios, who said that some projects failed to produce benefits because the Defense department told him where to spend the money and on which projects. "You can't subordinate development to defense and diplomacy."

He called on the incoming US president to reorganize foreign aid under USAID leadership through executive order as soon as he or she is inaugurated - before cabinet officers are installed and are able to fight to retain control over aid budgets.

"To reform foreign aid, abolish it and start over," he said.

He also called for aid experts not to be rotated to new countries every two years and instead stay five or even 10 years in a country, building "personal relationships" vital to work in the Third World.

Note: Ben Barber's recent photojournalism book GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World, includes dozens of photos taken while he covered Afghanistan and Iraq for USAID's newsletter Frontlines.

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