Rohingya, Syrian, and Yemeni women are paying for Trump’s ideological withdrawal of UN funds

Millions of people are being denied basic reproductive services.
Millions of people are being denied basic reproductive services.
Image: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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The White House administration hasn’t delivered on most of president Donald Trump’s campaign promises. There’s been no repeal and replacement of Obamacare, and construction of a wall along the Mexico border has not yet begun. One thing the Trump administration has done, however, is chipped away at women’s reproductive health rights, both in the US and internationally.

On his second day in office, Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the so-called “global gag rule,” cutting aid funding to international organizations that provide abortions and abortion counseling—even those that so much as discuss the option of having an abortion with patients. In the months that followed, the administration continued to act in ways suggesting an ideological opposition to women’s reproductive rights, including curtailing the right to birth control enshrined in Obamacare and supporting legislation to introduce a blanket ban on abortion at the 20th week from conception, that was based on fake science.

The reproductive-rights decision with perhaps the greatest consequences beyond the US was the administration’s withdrawal of its financial support to the United Nations Population Fund. The UNFPA supports reproductive health in developing countries and in emergency situations. Trump invoked a decades-old provision of US law that allows his administration to withhold UNFPA funding over concerns that the UNFPA was in some way involved with alleged government-led coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization programs in China. It’s not clear what the basis for this decision was, since the US government itself has found no evidence to support these claims.

This isn’t the first time the US has refused to fund the UNFPA. As president, George W. Bush, too, withdrew UNFPA funding. Since 2009 though, US contributions have been significant. And in the past two years, the UNFPA has heavily relied on them, especially to finance its emergency fund.

As Klaus Simoni Pedersen, the UNFPA chief of resource mobilization, explained to Quartz, contributions to the UNFPA go towards two different objectives: The institutional budget, which supports the ongoing work of the UNFPA, and the emergency fund, which in turn is used for two efforts, development and addressing humanitarian crises.


In 2016, the US contributed $31 million to the institutional fund, and $38 million to the emergency fund. That made the US the fourth biggest UNFPA donor overall, accounting for 9% of the institutional budget, and 19% of all the humanitarian budget (which takes up most of the emergency fund).

This contribution, according to the UNFPA, funded life-saving support to 10.5 million women, children, and young adults under 24 years old. It also funded sexual and reproductive health services and programs to fight gender-based violence, which, combined, helped 9 million people worldwide. US contributions also supported 750 mobile clinics.

It is impossible to say for sure how much money the US would have contributed to the UNFPA in 2017 had it not withdrawn from the fund. But based on previous years’ numbers, it’s clear the US withdrawal left a large funding gap. Other countries increased their donations for 2017, some deliberately to try and close the funding gap resulting from Trump’s withdrawal decision, according to the UNFPA. But while the UNFPA “is close to replenishing the core funding,” says Pederson, the same isn’t true for the emergency fund.

According to the UNFPA, there are three areas which would likely have especially benefited from the withdrawn US contributions: the Syrian refugee crisis, the humanitarian crises caused by civil war in Yemen, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar.

In 2016, for example, US contributions accounted for 27% of the funding to support services for Syrian refugees in Jordan. UNFPA representatives estimate that the US would also have been a significant supporter for Yemen, where the funding gap for 2017 is especially high (only 20% of expected costs have been covered so far). That’s based on the US’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war, and the former’s behavior in similar circumstances in the past. As for the Rohingya crisis, it hadn’t yet exploded in 2016, but represents the kind of humanitarian emergency the US has in past years been inclined to direct funds toward. Based on US contributions from previous years, Pedersen estimates that the US could have contributed up to $4 million, which would have covered half the current funding gap for the Rohingya crisis.

“We are missing the US,” says Pedersen. The UNFPA enjoys broad support across member states, he adds, including from some of the most conservative, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia. Currently the UNFPA has over 100 supporters (the number fluctuates each year), making it one of the largest UN funds. While there are other countries that do not finance the UNFPA, it’s because they can’t, financially—many are on the receiving end of UNFPA support. The US is the only country currently not contributing to the fund for ideological or political reasons.