WASHINGTON, Feb 26, 2013 (AFP) - With the United States days away from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts, anti-poverty campaigners fear that reductions in foreign aid could potentially lead to thousands of deaths.
The world's largest economy faces $85 billion in cuts virtually across the board starting on March 1 unless the White House and Congress reach a last-minute deal ahead of the self-imposed deadline known as the sequester.
While the showdown has caused concern in numerous circles, activists are pushing hard to avoid a 5.3 percent cut in US development assistance which they fear could set back programs to feed the poor and prevent disease.
"The sequester is an equal cut across the board, but equal cuts don't have equal impact," said Tom Hart, US executive director of the One campaign, the anti-poverty group co-founded by U2 frontman Bono.
"Those who live right on the edge have the most to lose and, indeed, in the poorest parts of the world like Africa this could literally mean the difference between life and death," Hart said.
The One campaign estimated that cuts from the sequester could mean that 171,900 people would not have HIV/AIDS medication, resulting in 39,200 deaths, and that thousands would die from cutbacks to child vaccinations and to distribution of mosquito nets to stem malaria.
Hart acknowledged that thousands would not die instantly after the sequester, but said the financial figures took into account the long-term effects if the cuts to foreign assistance become permanent.
Some 150 volunteers from across the United States lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as part of an effort by the One campaign to put foreign assistance on the priority list.
Mathias Akuoka, a graduate student at the University of North Texas who is originally from Ghana, told lawmakers how as a child he had to walk four miles (six kilometers) for drinking water and that he had studied under streetlights.
"Foreign assistance may be very little, but it means so much when it goes to one of these places. Even if it provides one electricity bulb it can serve 100 kids who study under it," he said.
Megan Ramirez, who was also speaking to Texas lawmakers, said that foreign assistance was in the long-term interest of the United States by building a healthier, more prosperous world.
"If we're at the point where a child dies from mosquito bites every minute and we can stop that -- and that's totally within our power -- why shouldn't we?" she said.
Fellow campaigner Paulina Sosa said she was emphasizing to lawmakers that foreign assistance was only 0.6 percent of the federal budget and went to projects already on the ground, despite the weak global economy.
Anti-poverty advocates say they generally received a positive reception across party lines. Former Republican president George W. Bush worked with lawmakers from the rival Democratic Party to support billions of dollars in projects to fight AIDS in poor countries.
But foreign assistance has strong critics from the right-wing populist Tea Party movement. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky proposed last week to cut foreign aid by half to offset the spending cuts under the sequester.
"When we're dealing with a budget crisis here at home, it's only responsible to bring this money home," Paul said in a statement. Paul has generally focused not on development assistance but on cutting aid to Pakistan, Egypt and other nations with complicated relationships with the United States.
Secretary of State John Kerry last week staunchly defended foreign aid and voiced frustration that many Americans believed it constituted far more of overall US spending than it actually does.
Kerry said foreign assistance "is not charity" but rather "an investment in a strong America and free world."