COVID-19 and Foreign Assistance: Issues for Congress

April 6, 2020
COVID-19 and Foreign Assistance: Issues for Congress
As Congress considers policy responses to the global spread
Much of this assistance is channeled through the World
of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Members of
Health Organization (WHO), which is helping developing
Congress may consider the impact of the pandemic on U.S.
countries prepare for large-scale COVID-19 testing and
foreign assistance agencies and programs, and explore the
implementation of public-health emergency plans.
pandemic’s influence on U.S. foreign aid priorities. This
analysis focuses on current pandemic-related personnel and
Other assistance is being provided bilaterally: USAID
program issues at the U.S. Agency for International
reports that it has committed $274 million in emergency
Development (USAID) and other U.S. foreign assistance
funds for up to 64 of the most at-risk countries facing the
agencies, and identifies potential concerns about the
COVID-19 threat (as of March 26). The Peace Corps’
pandemic’s effect on U.S. global development strategies.
suspension of operations precludes it from taking a role in
the response. MCC programs, which operate over a longer
time horizon, are unlikely to address the pandemic
On March 14, the State Department authorized the return to
significantly, though some operations have been disrupted
the United States of high-risk U.S. government personnel
by country lockdowns and social distancing.
and family members from diplomatic or consular posts
abroad. The impact of such departures varies by post.
Funding. To date, Congress has appropriated almost $1.8
USAID maintains that all of its staff under Chief of Mission
billion in emergency foreign assistance funds through two
authority are following State Department guidance on
supplemental appropriations bills to address the impact of
authorized and ordered departure. The Millennium
COVID-19 (a separate COVID-19 supplemental, P.L. 116-
Challenge Corporation (MCC) is also authorizing the
127, did not include foreign assistance funds) (Table 1).
departure from overseas posts on a limited basis. The Peace
Corps, in contrast, has suspended all operations worldwide
Table 1. FY2020 Emergency/Supplemental
out of concern that disruptions in international air travel
Foreign Aid for COVID-19 Response
may make guaranteeing volunteer safety difficult. A
(U.S.$ in millions)
worldwide volunteer evacuation is underway; post staff
have not yet been evacuated.
116-136 Total
The most recent COVID-19 supplemental legislation (P.L.
116-136) authorized the State Department and USAID to
USAID Op. Expenses

provide additional paid leave to address employee
USAID Insp. General

hardships related to COVID-19, both in the United States
and abroad. Many nongovernmental organizations that
Global Health Programs

implement U.S. foreign assistance through grants and
contracts are also taking steps to limit their employees’
Economic Support Fund

exposure to the virus, including by limiting travel,
potentially affecting program costs and implementation
Int’l. Disaster Assistance
Migration & Refugee Assist.

Programming and Funding
Peace Corps

USAID has led U.S. foreign assistance efforts to address
the global spread and impact of COVID-19, in conjunction
Total, all accounts
791 1,777
with domestic and international activities of the Department
Source: P.L. 116-123, P.L. 116-136.
of Health and Human Services (HHS). To date, USAID
Notes: Does not include State Department diplomatic and consular
assistance has focused primarily on
funds or Department of Health and Human Services funding, as those
 providing equipment and training to health care workers
are not considered foreign assistance under the Foreign Assistance
(though personal protective equipment, in short supply
Act of 1961, as amended.
in the United States, is reportedly no longer being
The first round of supplemental aid funding (P.L. 116-123,
signed into law on March 6) focused on replenishing
 boosting lab and surveillance capacity;
emergency health and disaster assistance funds that had

already been depleted by COVID-19 response activities. It
scaling up existing water, sanitation, and hygiene
also included ESF funds for “economic, security and
(WASH) programs to educate communities about how
stabilization requirements” related to the pandemic. The
to slow the spread of the virus; and
second supplemental with foreign assistance funding (P.L.
 addressing the impact of the virus on livelihoods.
116-136, signed into law on March 27) provided additional

COVID-19 and Foreign Assistance: Issues for Congress
disaster assistance funds, new funding for migration and
the outbreak, and some of its country-specific updates
refugee assistance, and USAID and Peace Corps
are reflecting effects of COVID-19, including rising
administrative funds to manage additional program funding
food and fuel prices.
and evacuate volunteers, respectively.
Fragile states and displaced populations. The policies
The magnitude of the pandemic has strained U.S. domestic
that have shown promise in stopping the spread of
resources while also putting pressure on international
COVID-19, including social distancing and contact
assistance. With a whole-of-government initiative under
tracing, may be especially challenging to implement in
way to address the pandemic in the United States, Congress
the world’s most fragile states and among displaced
is continuously assessing whether funds should support
populations such as refugees. Overcrowded living
pandemic response overseas, or if such resources should be
spaces and insufficient hygiene and sanitation facilities
focused on response needs in the United States.
make conditions conducive to contagion, while poor
health services and infrastructure mean there is limited
disease surveillance and an insufficient capacity to
The U.N. has issued a $2 billion appeal to fight COVID-19
manage an outbreak. Some experts warn that the
in the world’s poorest countries, where experts warn that
pandemic could be destabilizing in contexts such as
the pandemic could quickly overwhelm health systems and
Afghanistan or Syrian refugee camps, with potential
devastate economies in the coming weeks. While many
national security implications for the United States.
U.S. officials are currently focused on slowing the spread of
U.N. officials have also cautioned that if outbreaks of
the virus domestically, as well as finding treatments and
COVID-19 are not managed in more vulnerable
developing vaccines, the pandemic’s spread in less
countries, the virus could “circle back around the
developed countries could have broad implications for U.S.
globe.” Congress may prioritize efforts to stop the
foreign assistance policy and priorities. Issues Congress
spread of disease in these contexts.
may consider as it develops related policies include the
Democratic backsliding. As governments around the

world implement restrictions on movement and
Continuity of operations and program oversight. The
gathering, assert emergency executive powers, and
evacuation of staff from overseas posts, in addition to
postpone elections as a means of slowing the spread of
implementing partners, may result in reduced capacity
COVID-19, concern has grown among some observers
to carry out and oversee both ongoing programs and
about the potential abuse of these tools to undermine
new COVID-19-related programs. USAID maintains
democracy. Congress has long prioritized democracy
that it has planning efforts underway to ensure that staff
promotion as a foreign assistance objective, and may
can continue to execute the agency’s mission even if
consider the role of such efforts as a component of
staffing changes. However, in countries that are
global pandemic response.
significantly affected, agencies may struggle to monitor
programs adequately, which may have a negative impact
Deployment of aid personnel domestically. In 2005,
on program quality and congressional oversight.
the Peace Corps mobilized 272 volunteers for short-term

“Peace Corps Response” assignments to assist disaster
Global health. As global health resources are
relief for Hurricane Katrina. USAID’s Office of U.S.
increasingly focused on preventing and treating
Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) also managed
COVID-19, other health activities, including the
logistics in response to the hurricane. With all Peace
HIV/AIDS programs that make up the bulk of U.S.
Corps volunteers recently evacuated and a large medical
global health assistance, may face competition for funds
supply management operation ongoing in the United
and trained medical personnel. The potential impact of
States, Congress could consider options to deploy
the pandemic on health workers and facilities could also
resources domestically as in the past.
have broader implications for maternal and child health
efforts, another U.S. assistance priority. The pandemic
Global leadership. Foreign assistance is a tool with
may influence the ongoing debate within Congress over
which donor countries may seek to exert influence and
the merits of aid investment in health system
leadership. While the United States is the top bilateral
strengthening rather than disease-specific efforts.
aid donor in general, and for COVID-19 response

specifically to date, China and Russia have pointedly
Global food security. The U.N. Food and Agriculture
stepped up their efforts to support other countries’
Organization has raised concern that food supply chains
responses. Congress may consider the implications of
may be affected by COVID-19, with lockdowns and
the U.S. international response on U.S. global influence
restrictions on movement disrupting food production
and strategic priorities.
and distribution. USAID has indicated that its COVID-
19-related humanitarian assistance includes food
Nick M. Brown, Analyst in Foreign Assistance and
assistance, where appropriate. However, USAID has not
Foreign Policy
released information on how, if at all, it may reprogram
Marian L. Lawson, Specialist in Foreign Assistance
its food security and agricultural development programs,
Emily M. Morgenstern, Analyst in Foreign Assistance and
an issue that may be of interest to Members as the
pandemic continues. The USAID-funded Famine Early
Foreign Policy
Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) is monitoring

COVID-19 and Foreign Assistance: Issues for Congress

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