Questions on the 2017 U.S. Budget: The State Department Responds

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By Hari Sastry, Director, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources

Last month, Freedom House posed questions for Secretary of State John Kerry on the U.S. State Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2017. Here are the department’s answers.

Thank you for your support and questions about the FY 2017 State Department and USAID budget request. Democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) programs remain a significant priority for this Administration. 

The Department of State and USAID’s FY 2017 budget request for DRG programs is $2.7 billion, which is $411.8 million (18 percent) above the FY 2016 appropriations level of $2.3 billion, and is $786.2 million (41 percent) above FY 2015 (note: this excludes funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, which has a request of $103.5 million.)

This increase supports DRG policy and development priorities, which are grounded in the following three goals:

(1) Address democratic backsliding and closing political spaces by promoting government accountability, citizen participation, and fundamental human rights;

(2) Respond to and support democratic political transitions; and

(3) Sustain our investments in countries that are making progress.

DRG programs promote anti-corruption and government accountability, women’s empowerment and the protection of human rights, including for historically marginalized populations across all of these priorities.

In response to your questions:

Elections: The FY 2017 State and USAID budget includes a request of $172.7 million, a $9.7 million (6 percent) increase from FY 2015, for political competition and consensus-building, including elections.  This funding will support peaceful political competition and negotiation of disputes through democratic and representative political processes, including credible elections.  It will also create and support venues for people to debate public priorities and provide input to decisions that affect their lives.

Civil Society programs:  The FY 2017 request includes $652.1 million, a $255.9 million (65 percent) increase from FY 2015 for civil society programs in support of the President’s Stand with Civil Society Initiative. Given the increasingly troubling and repressive measures taken against civil society organizations by their own governments, these resources are critical.  Programs will focus on protecting and expanding space for civil society around the world by: supporting venues through which citizens can freely organize, advocate, and communicate with their government and with each other; strengthening a democratic political culture that values citizen and civic engagement, and respect for human rights; and mobilizing constituencies to advocate for political reform, good governance, and strengthened democratic institutions and processes.

Internet Freedom: The FY 2017 request includes $30.5 million, an increase of $10.0 million (34 percent) from FY 2015, to leverage unique opportunities to support breakthrough technological innovation for internet freedom in the context of new and acute cyber threats, threats, particularly to civic actors and human rights defenders in closed and closing spaces, in addition to funding ongoing programs.

LGBTI: The FY 2017 request will support programs globally that promote and protect the universal human rights of marginalized and at-risk populations, including LGBTI persons.  Through this request, which includes support for the Global Equality Fund, we will continue to work to ensure that LGBTI persons are protected from violence and harassment by supporting civil society groups to undertake a range of activities in support of these goals.  U.S. assistance supports engagement with local activists to support country-specific programming and research to help change the narrative on LGBTI rights around the world and shed light on the rights and protections of LGBTI persons as a part of State and USAID’s broader human rights approach.

Russian propaganda: U.S. messaging to counter Russian propaganda is funded through the Public Diplomacy component of the Diplomatic Engagement budget request, as well as through the budget of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  State and USAID will support foreign assistance programs that improve access to local sources of objective information, including by strengthening the capacity of independent media outlets that counter corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and civil society, which we believe will mitigate the negative impact of Russian influence.  A total of $264.0 million is requested in FY 2017 for DRG programs in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia.  

Ukraine: The FY 2017 request for DRG in Ukraine is $53.8 million, $41.0 million (319 percent) above FY 2015.  Programs will help the country fight against corruption; strengthen civil society and independent media; advance justice sector reform and decentralization; and expand the protection and promotion of human rights as part of strengthening Ukraine's democracy, based on rule of law and international democratic standards.

Turkey: The U.S. engages on these sensitive issues through diplomatic means rather than through assistance-funded efforts.

Azerbaijan: In line with the President’s Stand with Civil Society initiative, $5.8 million is requested for DRG programs in Azerbaijan in FY 2017, $2.1 million above FY 2015.  These programs aim to strengthen citizens’ ability to participate in public life, increase media freedom, improve media professionalism, and support the rights of journalists and civil society.  They will promote good governance and foster democratization, including development of democratic institutions and processes, in line with the international commitments and democracy standards to which Azerbaijan has pledged to adhere. 

Burma: Following the historic victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in the November 2015 elections, the FY 2017 request of $29.9 million for DRG programs will support Burma’s ongoing democratic transition and reforms as well as advance national reconciliation and the political dialogue process. 

China: The FY 2017 request of $10.0 million through the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor will support the development of civil society, rule of law, freedom of information and expression, and public participation. It also will fund a range of projects that complement U.S. policy of principled engagement and emphasize areas where financial support from the Chinese government is improbable. Programs will promote the rights of the most marginalized members of Chinese society, including ethnic minorities, religious minorities, migrant workers, persons with disabilities, and LGBTI persons.  Included in the budget request for China, $800,000 will provide expertise on criminal law and procedure to Chinese officials, jurists, and academics and to support the efforts to promote long-term criminal justice reform in China.
Hong Kong: The State Department helps strengthen civil society development in Hong Kong through Diplomatic Engagement programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program.  In addition, we have repeatedly expressed our support for universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with China’s commitments under the Basic Law. We firmly believe that the legitimacy of the Chief Executive will be greatly enhanced if Hong Kong’s residents have a meaningful choice of candidates. 

Mexico: The $78.9 million requested for DRG programs in Mexico in FY 2017 will focus on strengthening the capacity of Mexico to incorporate human rights-based approaches to public policies and programs, engage civic actors on human rights issues, and protect the rights of journalists and human rights defenders. Programs will also help develop criminal justice reform legislation; support for judicial institutions at the federal, state, and municipal levels; and increase civil society’s capacity to advocate effectively and to monitor government efforts in human rights and criminal justice reform.

Cuba: The Cuba policy change has brought a greater focus and more public discourse on human rights. As in prior years, the promotion of democratic principles and human rights remains the core goal of U.S. assistance to Cuba. The $15.0 million budget for Cuba reflects the Administration’s continuing priority to support civil society initiatives that promote democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, particularly freedoms of expression and association.  Programs provide assistance to victims of political repression and their families; strengthen independent Cuban civil society; support the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their future and reduce their dependence on the Cuban state; and promote the flow of uncensored information to, from, and on the island. 

Burundi: The FY 2017 budget includes $2.0 million in support of a new DRG program in Burundi.  Programs will strengthen mechanisms for the protection of and response to violations of human rights, support civil society organizations and media to monitor government policies and systems, and support the inclusion of diverse voices in the political process.  Complementary activities will address the drivers of continued and renewed conflict, continue ongoing atrocity prevention work, and encourage consensus-building by focusing on discussions to revise and harmonize the legal framework governing the 2020 electoral process and national politics. 

Ethiopia: The FY 2017 request includes $4.1 million for DRG programs in Ethiopia.  Programs will focus on building the capacity of officials in the legal and judicial systems to promote constitutional human rights as well as implementing partnerships with major Government of Ethiopia development programs in health, agriculture, humanitarian aid and education to strengthen citizen oversight of governance, and stimulate citizen-led accountability and participation in these major development initiatives. Discussions with the Government of Ethiopia on independent U.S. support for civil society are ongoing; should an opening emerge, funds will be made available to support critical activities.

DRG programs are a critical component of our ability to promote resilient, open, and democratic societies.  For more information about our foreign assistance request and priorities, please visit:  

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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