WASHINGTON — The inability of Congress to bridge the partisan divide on fiscal policy is literally a matter of life and death for some civilians in war-ravaged nations, where US-funded operations to remove unexploded bombs and land mines are being canceled or curtailed for lack of money.
Leftover explosives continue to maim and kill people at a high rate from South America to Southeast Asia — with 4,300 casualties worldwide in 2011. But congressional inaction on budgets and the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester have blocked State Department funds for humanitarian groups that remove leftover ordnance.
US-supported removal teams have been laid off, weapons removal efforts have been suspended, and pledges of artificial limbs, wheelchairs, and other assistance for victims put on hold.
“There is a human side to it that is so remote from Congress,” said Michael Lundquist, executive director of the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development in Clinton, Mass., which began providing prosthetics and vocational training for land mine victims in Central America in the 1990s and also works in Peru, Columbia, and Jordan. “They are not face to face with the war wounded who need these services. There isn’t a sense of urgency.”
Washington’s budget paralysis is often associated with domestic repercussions like the drag on economic activity and job creation. But the plight of nonprofit groups that work on removing explosives illustrates how partisan dysfunction is also affecting some of the most vulnerable populations far from US shores.
In Afghanistan — which is among the countries most littered with land mines and unexploded bombs, mostly from the Soviet invasion three decades ago but also left by US forces over the last decade — the force of about 12,000 US-funded mine removal workers has shrunk to 6,000, according to Clear Path International, a nonprofit with offices in Seattle and Dorset, Vt., that helps oversee some of the work.
One of the hardest-hit programs is the so-called Spark project, which employs survivors of land-mine explosions to produce de-mining equipment for local field teams.
“We have had to disband the Spark program,” said Kiman Lucas, Clear Path’s executive director. “The market for de-mining tools dropped out.’’
The State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement is the largest single source of money for such operations around the world. It has spent nearly $2 billion since 1993 in 90 countries. Of the 20 nations that have been declared mine-free, the office helped finance work in 15 of them. This year it was planning to fund work in 40 countries with a budget of nearly $150 million. But now the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 is almost over, and the money has not begun to flow.
“We are still waiting to get our budget fully finalized,” said Steve Costner, the office’s deputy director for policy.
The State Department says a host of factors have combined this year to significantly slow the awarding of grants. For one, with no annual budget, the federal government has had to rely on a so-called continuing resolution to keep agencies operating at last year’s funding levels. But that wasn’t passed until March — already halfway through the fiscal year.
The automatic cuts known as the sequester, meanwhile, also went into effect earlier this year. The controversial, blunt-edged approach to cutting spending was originally designed in 2011 to force Congress to identify targeted cuts to reduce the federal deficit. But both parties failed to find common ground, triggering about $85 billion in cuts in the current fiscal year.
Combined with the late approval of the continuing resolution, the sequester — which reduced manpower through furloughs and hiring freezes — strained the weapons removal office’s ability to distribute the money, according to State Department officials.
The budget delays have impacted a host of projects across the globe. Clear Path said at least 13 of 18 victims-assistance programs have been on hold since April.
Meanwhile, a 12-person clearance team in Lebanon specializing in removing the bomblets known as cluster bombs — many of which fail to explode as designed — has not worked since June 1, according to the British-based Mine Advisory Group. In Cambodia, 30 of its most highly skilled personnel have been on unpaid leave since June 1.
At the same time, 75 people employed by the group in Vietnam — where bombs dropped by US planes 40 years ago still pose a daily hazard to rural populations — were set to run out of funding at the end of July, he said.
Costner expressed confidence that the funding hurdles will soon be overcome. Senator Patrick Leahy, a leading proponent of the programs in Congress, also predicted the projects will ultimately get needed support.
“Sometimes there are bureaucratic delays in getting the funds out the door, but I fully expect the program to continue,” said the Vermont Democrat, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees State Department appropriations.
But that is little consolation in communities that are awaiting a road to market to be cleared of land mines, say advocates, or for residents whose access to a nearby water source is blocked by the presence of unexploded cluster bombs.
“This issue does not feel resolved in villages and families that have recent land mine and unexploded ordnance accidents,” James Hathaway, a cofounder of Clear Path, said in an interview from Vietnam last week. “It certainly does not feel resolved here in the former DMZ.”
Other groups that rely on the State Department for funding have been forced to search elsewhere for donors. In Colombia, where there are an average of two land mine victims each day, the Polus Center’s victims assistance programs have been sustained this year by a $200,000 gift from a private company, Green Mountain Coffee.
The lack of US funds is especially acute, advocates say, because the dangers of land mines no longer capture the level of global attention they once did and private donations have slowed.
To increase public concern, Clear Path and Mine Advisory Group recently enlisted Jonathan Goldsmith, who has become a cult-like figure for his role as “The Most Interesting Man in the World” in commercials for Dos Equis beer. Goldsmith, who lives in Manchester, Vt., is currently in Vietnam, where he is seeing the groups’ work firsthand.
“They struggle, they work hard under difficult, dangerous conditions,” he said in an interview, “and operate on a shoestring. There are millions of tons of leftover explosives. The number of people affected by that is horrible. It is horrendous.”
The reputation of the humanitarian groups and the US government also are in jeopardy. The State Department’s Costner said explosives removal efforts have often been the basis for improved relations with nations that have been at odds with the United States, including Vietnam and Myanmar.
“There is a lot of goodwill built around that,” he said. “Hearts and minds begins with saving life and limb.”
But to illustrate what’s most immediately at stake, he holds up a thin plastic green object that resembles a small toy or kitchen utensil.
“This is butterfly mine,” he said. “One like this could kill a child.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.