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White House Wants To Cut U.S. Spending That's Helping Save Lives In South Sudan


The United States was a key player in South Sudan's independence seven years ago. Now South Sudan is on the brink of famine caused by a civil war. The United Nations is hoping it can count on the U.S. again despite the Trump administration's America First foreign policy. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As the Trump administration was rolling out its budget proposals to cut foreign assistance this week, David Shearer was at the State Department describing the U.N. mission he runs in South Sudan.

DAVID SHEARER: Our operation is an expensive one, but at the same time, it's delivering huge benefits. There's no doubt in my mind that tens - probably hundreds of thousands of people are alive as a result of us being present on the ground.

KELEMEN: The 12,000 strong U.N. Peacekeeping force has faced criticism for failing to do enough to protect aid workers and civilians. A year and a half ago, the U.N. Security Council voted to beef it up with 4,000 more troops. Shearer says only about a quarter of them have arrived. He's hoping to deploy them to a part of South Sudan that was a major farming area before fighting last year forced a million people to flee.

SHEARER: If we can do that, then we give people the confidence not to leave their homes in the first place. But secondly, those people who have left may start to come back. That would be I think a wonderful thing if that happened because then people can go back to their lives, their homes, their livelihoods and, just as importantly, start growing food that can benefit all of South Sudan.

KELEMEN: And this is key, he says, because South Sudan is, in his words, teetering on the brink of famine. A State Department official who was briefing reporters on the budget wasn't making any promises when it comes to the U.N. mission in South Sudan. Doug Pitkin says the current request would only cover about 56 percent of what the U.N. is asking of the U.S. for peacekeepers all around the world.

DOUG PITKIN: So we have not yet made a specific determination of how the South Sudan mission will be prioritized against the others, but because we are looking for greater cost containment in the U.N. more generally, we do have a lower funding level than the full Peacekeeping estimate.

KELEMEN: The U.N. official based in South Sudan says he doesn't only need U.S. aid. The U.S. also plays a key role diplomatically and cheer or praise the Trump administration for announcing an arms embargo on South Sudan just as the latest round of peace talks began. And though the talks have been, in his words, disappointing up to now, Shearer is hoping the U.S. can help him keep the pressure on.

SHEARER: The U.S. is the - one of the most critical players of all both towards the South Sudanese but also towards the region as a whole. The U.S. position is - obviously has enormous influence on the way that things move forward.

KELEMEN: And how the U.N. mission is run in South Sudan. The mandate is up for renewal next month, and Shearer says he wanted to hear what changes the U.S. might have in mind. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.