05/16/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Africa and the Sequester: A Matter of Life or Death

In April, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced furloughs because of sequestration -- legislation that went into effect in March, automatically and incrementally cutting funding across the federal government over the next ten years. The potential decline in service at airports prompted outrage from travelers facing flight delays. Elected officials acted swiftly to pacify their constituents. In a political climate characterized by partisan bickering, Congress united to pass legislation within 24 hours, restoring funding and keeping FAA workers on the job.

But sequestration threatens more than flight schedules. For many people around the world, sequestration is literally a life-or-death issue. Its impact may be most deeply felt by those living in developing nations. Millions of people around the world depend on vital assistance provided through U.S. poverty-focused development assistance programs like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Recently a close friend who works for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation returned from a trip to Africa, and she told me about some of the work EGPAF is doing on the ground. EGPAF President, Charles Lyons recently visited two facilities in the Nyanza province of Kenya, where she observed how -- with support from PEPFAR -- programs are helping to change the trajectory of HIV/AIDS among children. I was encouraged to hear about remarkable work there to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission. During his visit he saw more than 70 children who had been tested and declared free of HIV at 18 months. The facilities track mothers and babies, providing comprehensive HIV services within the first three years of life. This is phenomenal.

During my own recent trip to Africa, I too saw programs that provide vital medical assistance to mothers and children. That experience left an indelible mark on my soul. The varied and lush countrysides and the bustling cities--so full of life and energy -- remain with me. But most prominent are the faces of the many babies I encountered at a Malawi children's hospital supported by our poverty-focused development assistance dollars. That facility is a beacon of hope for so many families who travel miles, and sometimes days, on foot to get medical treatment. Without it, their children might be lost forever.

Seeing that reality on the ground in Africa and knowing that the funding that supports these programs -- comprising less than 1 percent of the federal budget -- is under threat, I see sequestration as no mere inconvenience. Lives hang in the balance.

Fortunately, organizations like Bread for the World have lobbied relentlessly to protect vital programs. In February, Bread for the World joined a coalition of faith-based organizations in urging Congress to maintain funding for international humanitarian and poverty-focused development assistance. Some of those organizations include Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, the United Methodist Church, the General Board of Church and Society, and the Islamic Society of North America.

From our united effort, we can claim a small victory: funding for poverty-focused development assistance is relatively unchanged from the previous year -- with a slight increase to cover development assistance, humanitarian assistance, and steady funding for global health initiatives. Unfortunately, these increases were offset by reductions in a number of other accounts, including the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Moving forward, with more tough budget choices ahead, Congress needs to prioritize funding for international assistance programs that have proven effective in saving and improving lives. This can only be done with a citizenry that refuses to remain silent in the face of life-or-death budget choices for our brothers and sisters in distant lands. While keeping planes in the air is important, saving lives is much more so. Please lend your voice to our coalition of leaders and organizations as we urge Congress to safeguard poverty-focused development assistance by replacing sequestration with a balanced and responsible budget that protects those most in need.

Rev. Derrick Boykin is the associate for African-American leadership outreach at Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging lawmakers to end hunger at home and abroad.