5 things for the development community to watch in the US election

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The final presidential debate held at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by: Chip Somodevilla / Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Global development might not be at the top of the list of issues voters are considering as they cast their ballots in the U.S. election on Nov. 3, but the outcome could have big implications for America’s approach to foreign aid, global health, and development for the foreseeable future.

In addition to determining who will be the U.S. president for the next four years, the election could also reshape the balance of power in Congress, introduce new faces to development leadership roles — or remove some key advocates — or devolve into a bitter power struggle that tests America’s own democratic institutions.

From policy and reform to funding and COVID-19 response, the outcome of these elections will change the operating environment for U.S. global development efforts in important ways.

 A large number of military veterans are running for office this year, and they often have a unique understanding of the importance of these [development] issues.

Here are five issues at stake for U.S. global development in this presidential election — and the days, weeks, or even months after that.

1. Global COVID-19 funding

The election will change the dynamics of negotiations for a new COVID-19 relief package, with potentially billions of dollars on the line in funding for a global response.

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Efforts to pass an emergency COVID-19 funding bill that would include money for the global response remain stalled, though there is hope that the election could restart the process and finally see additional aid approved.

Regardless of the election outcome, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress could negotiate with House Democrats and come to an agreement for emergency funding before the end of the year — likely some version of The Heroes Act, initially approved by the House in May. If not, and if Joe Biden wins or Democrats gain control of the Senate, it is likely that a package would be pushed through in the new year.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department have already allocated all of the emergency COVID-19 that was approved by Congress earlier this year, and while advocates have been pushing for up $20 billion in additional funding for the response, proposed legislation to date has fallen short.

2. Support for development

The outcome, especially of the presidential election, is likely to have significant bearing on how much emphasis and funding the development community will receive.

As far as the overall foreign aid budget goes, President Donald Trump has made his views clear with four consecutive budget proposals recommending dramatic cuts to development, which Congress repeatedly rejected.  But aid experts are cautious about concluding that a Biden victory or a Democratic majority in the Senate would automatically result in more money.

“I wouldn’t necessarily count on the guarantee of a lot more resources,” said Erin Collinson, director of policy outreach at the Center for Global Development, citing budget pressure and “pressing domestic needs.”

Apart from overall funding amounts, the two presidential candidates differ dramatically in their preferred mode of delivery, with Trump casting a skeptical eye on contributions to multilateral organizations, and Biden vowing to recommit to them. Those differing views could change the distribution of America’s development dollars, even if they do not change the overall amounts, Collinson said.

In Congress, some aid champions — Democrat and Republican — will no longer be in office due to the election and some retirements. This could have an impact on the attention, hearings, and funding that the issues receive.

A couple races to watch are those of Rep. Mike McCaul, a Texan who has strongly supported development issues in his role as the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and could be in a tight race; and newcomer Deborah Ross, a Democrat from North Carolina who is running for Congress and has served as a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s advisory council.

If Biden wins the election, there are rumors he could tap Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, as his secretary of state. Coons has been among the most engaged lawmakers on development issues, so while the development community could gain an advocate in Foggy Bottom, they might lose one on Capitol Hill.

Advocates will need to spend time, as they do in most election years, educating more people and looking for new champions or encouraging lawmakers to step up to fill any gaps. A large number of military veterans are running for office this year, and they often have a unique understanding of the importance of these issues, development advocates told Devex.

3. Congressional committee leadership

While the election will determine whether there is new leadership on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Committee and the state and foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, it is certain that the authorizing and funding committees on the House of Representatives’ side will have new leadership next year.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, lost his primary in July and Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, who is the chair of the Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee on state and foreign operations, is retiring at the end of her term.

There is a race for the leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee with Rep. Brad Sherman, Rep. Gregory Meeks and Rep. Joaquin Castro vying for the job. Sources tell Devex Meeks appears to have a slight edge at the moment and said that new leadership could mean more attention on development issues.

Lowey, long a champion of global development, particularly for education, will be missed, development experts told Devex. Rep. Barbara Lee is expected to lead the state and foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, if she wants the job, experts said.

In the Senate, the future is less clear. A key race to watch is in South Carolina, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is in a close race. The development community has long relied on Graham to advocate for maintaining foreign aid funding, particularly among Republicans. The community’s reliance on Graham has “given him an enormous amount of power over the state and foreign ops budget that I think is unhealthy,” one advocate told Devex.

If Democrats win the Senate then Sen. Bob Menendez is expected to become the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But even if the Republicans maintain control, with 10 senators on the committee up for reelection, and a few in tight races, it could look different next year.

4. Foreign aid reform

While USAID has undergone a significant restructuring during the Trump administration, some broader reforms on development advocates’ wishlists have fallen by the wayside. One of those is funding flexibility, with some experts calling for a reduction in the use of congressional earmarks to make spending decisions and an increase in authority for the agency itself.

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Changes like that have been difficult to imagine at a time when the president’s influence revolves largely around slashing the aid budget, Collinson said.

“USAID has long expressed frustration with the proliferation of spending directives, but it was really hard to imagine lawmakers loosening the reins when the administration kept proposing much lower funding numbers and even threatening rescissions,” she said, referring to the administration’s efforts to take back aid funding that congress already appropriated.

If a Biden administration were to take office — and particularly if it did so alongside a Democratic majority in the Senate — some of those more ambitious aid reforms might find greater traction.

Going big could mean reorganizing U.S. foreign assistance, from the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance and the Treasury’s role at multilateral development banks to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation — or even rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act, Devex reported earlier this year.

“In my mind the presidential election offers a significant inflection point for the community,” said Conor Savoy, the executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.  “There is an opportunity for a rebalancing, a recommitment to development and diplomacy being equal to the defense side of things.”

5. US democracy promotion

For the first time, The Carter Center has launched an initiative to “strengthen transparency and trust in U.S. elections.” The nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1982 has a long history of working on election integrity abroad, but has become increasingly concerned about the quality of U.S. elections “backsliding” in the last decade.

“Given the scale of problems today — including deep polarization, lack of confidence in elections, obstacles to participation by minority groups and others, persistent racial injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic — the Center has decided that it should try to improve elections here at home, drawing on its global experience observing troubled elections and its knowledge of international standards,” The Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander said in a statement.

As concerns about America’s own democratic institutions have increased in recent years, they have also prompted questions about whether the U.S. government can credibly promote democratic governance through its foreign aid programs. If the election falls victim to voter suppression, efforts to undermine results, or even violence, America’s role as an advocate for free and fair elections could suffer further damage.

At the same time, concerns about election integrity, corruption, and democratic institutions inside the U.S. could motivate an effort to revitalize these priorities in both domestic and foreign policy. Biden has already said that he would organize and host a global summit for democracy during his first year in office, “to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values.”

About the authors

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.
  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.