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A running battle by conservatives to hold up the nomination of Randall Tobias, the Bush administration’s choice to head the United States Agency for International Development, came to an end last week when he was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate. But for many nongovernmental organizations that get funds from USAID, which was recently folded into the State Department, the uncertainty is just beginning. And it remains unclear whether they will be a part of discussions over the future of the agency. While some NGOs have praised the elevation of USAID at the State Department, others are pessimistic about the change, worrying that by combining the two, USAID’s independence will be lost and much of the long-term work conducted by NGOs will become subservient to the administration’s short-term policy objectives. Ambassador Tobias, the former U.S. global AIDS coordinator, will wear two hats at USAID: administrator and director of foreign assistance, a new position created by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that will oversee all foreign aid programs. Tobias’ confirmation was in jeopardy after Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) placed a hold on the nomination before the Senate’s St. Patrick’s Day recess. Conservatives have objected to the Bush administration’s failure to aggressively enforce provisions of the 2003 Global AIDS Initiative that require U.S.-funded organizations to adopt policies opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. Of particular outrage is the allotment of USAID funds to an Indian NGO, Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), that re-trafficked female sex workers in India back to their brothels after they were rescued by another USAID-funded NGO. U.S. funding for SANGRAM was cut off last September. Ryan Thompson, press secretary for Inhofe, says that Tobias met with the senator last week to discuss concerns over the grants and Inhofe’s issues were resolved. The senator echoed concerns first raised by the office of Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who has been leading the charge over USAID’s controversial funding of SANGRAM. Marc Wheat, staff director and chief counsel to Souder’s Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, says materials related to the controversy were handed over to the Senate only after Souder failed to get a meeting with Tobias to discuss his concerns. Tobias instead wrote a letter saying that he could discuss the matter only after he was confirmed as USAID administrator. Souder’s office was lobbied by social conservative groups, such as the Family Research Council, a critic of the lack of oversight on USAID funding. Tom McClusky, acting vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, says that Inhofe was pushing for a meeting between Tobias and Souder. McClusky, who has been working with Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) on this issue, says his group has never received an answer as to why the sex-trafficking provisions of the Global AIDS Initiative have not been enforced. Tobias’ ultimate confirmation last week seems to have changed little. The NGO community remains uncertain about what lies in store for it as USAID joins the State Department orbit. Having been excluded from administration discussions late last year about ways to bring the agency under the State Department umbrella, NGOs are now demanding a seat at Tobias’ table. At issue, many NGOs say, is the increased involvement of the military and other government entities in roles NGOs traditionally played in many conflicts around the globe. “For the NGO community it’s been an incremental process, a transformation by a thousand cuts,” says Nathaniel Raymond, communications adviser for Oxfam America, a confederation of 12 organizations that deals with injustice and poverty-related issues. Leading the pushback by NGOs on this issue is InterAction, a trade association of sorts for the NGO community with more than 160 members. Many of InterAction’s members say the recent restructuring of USAID indicates that government resources are being aligned to pursue the foreign policy objectives of the Bush administration. Yet other NGOs, such as Help the Afghan Children, have recently met with the president and first lady Laura Bush to discuss the need for better appropriation of funds. Stephen Perlman, quality performance officer for the organization, confirms that he and the group’s executive director have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, discussing the issue of appropriating funds with lawmakers who have returned from or are going to Afghanistan. But some groups, such as Direct Relief International, began passing on government funding last April after USAID rolled out a new requirement that all aid be branded as “From the American People.” “When we [NGOs] get together we love to say we are NGOs, with an emphasis on the �N,’ but all we end up doing is talking about USAID,” says Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief International.
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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