The US Budget Debate, Beyond Our Borders
You can’t really argue against the logic that we have to be responsible and efficient with the taxes paid by the hardworking citizenry of the United States. Having a lively debate about how to use our government budget and how big the government budget should be can lead to robust discussions and some good ideas and creative changes to our current processes. I’m all for that. Yet, it’s also true that there are a lot of negative effects sprouting from the current debate, which is seeking to drastically slash the US’s spending outlays.
If I was in the US, I’d be looking at cuts in education spending, health care funds, government jobs, and more. Since I’m not in the US, I have a different set of concerns as the budget cuts come down. These concerns range from how the cuts reduce our current US-funded programs in Azerbaijan, how prospects for new and innovative programs that engage Azerbaijanis with Americans are stifled, and how these changes affect our relationships, both on a more personal level (“America used to help us, but now they don’t” and on a more state-to-state level (“America doesn’t view us as a priority anymore”). Since I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, both of these things could potentially affect me. The first in that people start wondering why the US (and by extension, me) is no longer a friend and the second in that the Azerbaijan government starts to wonder why Peace Corps should stay here if America isn’t going to pay much attention, anyways.
A few of the notable reductions that have resulted from the current debate have been particularly unwelcome. First, education programs that send Azerbaijanis to schools in the US have been cut significantly. The FLEX program for high school exchanges was reduced by about 25% this year. That’s a host of informal ambassadors from Azerbaijan who will not be able to be couriers of cultural exchange. On top of that, those Azerbaijani students who come back from the US are both fantastic advocates of the US and some of the most capable people around upon their return, since they are introduced to so many new skills and views in the US. Those extra 10 or so people who couldn’t go this year are a lost opportunity for the US to build stronger relationships here.
The same goes for the Muskie program, administered by IREX, for students seeking Master’s degrees. This year’s group not only saw a reduction, but a reduction after they had chosen finalists. They had to tell three of the finalists that they could no longer go. Somehow, the program scraped together enough to get one more, so only two students were left hanging. It’s a shame that the program had to not only reduce, but also break the commitments it had made to those students. These opportunities are a once-in-a-lifetime chance for most of these people, and a positive opportunity for the US to enjoy the benefits of the world’s “best and brightest”.
The last part relates directly to Peace Corps. PC Azerbaijan will be looking at a reduced class this coming fall. Only 48 new Volunteers are expected, compared with previous PC AZ classes in the 60s, and projected for the 70s. It’s a 20% reduction for the new group, and it’s a 10-15% overall reduction in Peace Corps presence in Azerbaijan. For a country that is struggling to reconcile itself with the concentrated oil wealth in its capital and the widespread unemployment and low income outside the capital, having Peace Corps here in a critical mass is a great way to exercise soft diplomacy and, at the same time, make significant changes in the lives of individual Azerbaijanis.
And these are programs that really cost hardly anything when you compare them to almost anything else in the US budget. I can’t tell you how much this stuff is worth to us in monetary terms, but the raft of tax cuts and budget cuts seems to be doing more damage than good here. Of course we have to deal with our budget issues, but we’re not even giving it an honest try here: you aren’t going to fix our budget problem by cutting a few six- or seven-figure programs.