WASHINGTON - What do flood prevention in Nepal, wildlife preservation in Namibia and reef fishing in Indonesia have to do with the U.S. budget?
Global conservation programs like these have all gotten help from the U.S. government, and they are probably prime targets of the budget-cutting congressional "super committee," since they sit at the crossroads of two things Americans don't like spending much money on: foreign aid and the environment.
As the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction work to whittle the budget by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years — if they fail to do so by November 23, automatic spending cuts kick in — they may take aim at funds that pay for international conservation efforts.
That's of deep concern to the nongovernmental organizations that run these programs and see them as relative bargains that can prevent vastly more expensive relief operations or security threats caused by thinning natural resources in unstable parts of the world.
"It's important to consider what these investments are meant to support," said Reid Detchon, the nongovernmental United Nations Foundation vice president for energy and climate. "It's not all about birds and bunnies — it's investments that have a real impact on saving lives."
Most Americans don't know much about how U.S. foreign aid dollars are spent, and don't think highly of foreign aid in general, according to Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion polling at the American Enterprise Institute.
"Spend money here at home"
"Not only would they rather spend the money here at home, but they also don't think the money is spent well abroad." Bowman said in a telephone interview. "They certainly want to be involved in humanitarian efforts...but things beyond that aren't a very high priority at this time."
A 2010 World Public Opinion poll showed most respondents figured the United States spends 25 percent of its budget on foreign aid, more than double the 10 percent most respondents thought should be spent.
In fact, the U.S. government spends roughly 1 percent of its total budget on foreign aid. The share of total 2010 U.S. spending on international conservation, climate and environmental programs was $1.13 billion, or about 0.03 percent.
Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, told a House Appropriations panel recently that a key question in crafting a bill to fund foreign operations was what impact individual programs would have on U.S. national security. "If that question couldn't be answered, we reduced the spending, added restrictions, or canceled the program altogether."
"We are very concerned," said Todd Shelton of World Wildlife Fund, which works on conservation programs in 100 countries. "The international affairs budget and the international conservation programs that we are following also hangs in the balance."
A hedge against instability
Like others in the global environmental community, and some military experts, Shelton considers international environmental programs a relatively inexpensive hedge against geopolitical instability stemming from scarce resources.
"For a very small investment up front, now, we are confident of the positives, not only to the security of the United States and the planet, but also to the American taxpayer's pocketbook in the future," Shelton said.
A study in the journal Nature in August backed that up: researchers found that countries hit by the recurring dry heat of the El Nino global climate pattern — and the crop-killing droughts that often follow — doubled the risk of civil wars since 1950.
U.S. military experts have repeatedly told Congress that this scenario, and pressure for U.S. intervention in these conflicts, is one reason to shore up environmental programs, especially those to mitigate climate change and encourage sustainable resources.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman)