Biden victory will mark a return to 'normality,' development experts say

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden celebrates onstage at his election rally, after the news media announced that he has won the race. Photo by: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — After four tumultuous years that saw repeated battles over foreign aid funding and priorities, many in the development community welcomed what they see as a return to normalcy with the election of Joe Biden as the next U.S. president.

“It’s a return to normality and stability, in that the White House will no longer be actively trying to dismantle foreign assistance,” said Conor Savoy, executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. “This instability the White House injected in all this has been disruptive and destructive in some instances. That, if nothing else, is why Biden is the much better outcome for the community.”

The administration of President Donald Trump repeatedly recommended cutting the foreign aid budget by about 30% each year. And while significant additional funding may not be likely amid many competing priorities, major cuts will not be proposed, experts told Devex.

The election of Biden is a transition from “having essentially an enemy of development who tried to cut resources and didn’t respect development partners and the institutions that we work with … to a president who understands and cares deeply about development,” said Alex Thier, co-director at the bipartisan Task Force on US Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism.

The election result is a “tremendous relief” and a “tremendous gain” for people who care about development, said Thier, who served as a U.S. Agency for International Development official during the presidential administration of Barack Obama.

Biden will bring a different worldview to the presidency — one that embraces multilateral cooperation and places more emphasis on development.

“We’d bring aid back to the center of our foreign policy,” Antony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign, said at a May online event hosted by Meridian.

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Development experts are pushing for Biden to elevate the role of foreign aid, including by making the USAID administrator a member of the White House National Security Council’s Principals Committee — something that has not been done before, though the administrator has attended on an as-needed basis.

They are also calling for Biden to reinstate the NSC directorates for development and for global health security and biodefense, both of which existed in the Obama administration.

“I certainly think they will put in place some sort of structure to allow development to be elevated and development issues to be adjudicated with all the other policy considerations that we have,” a senior development expert, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told Devex.

The Biden administration’s attitude toward multilateral organizations and partners will be “vastly improved,” the expert said. “And I think that unhealthy rhetoric around China will change to something more constructive.”

“It’s a return to normality and stability, in that the White House will no longer be actively trying to dismantle foreign assistance.”

— Conor Savoy, executive director, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network

There have been some debates in the campaign about how ambitious a Biden administration would be on foreign aid and whether it would tackle significant reforms. How ambitious the administration would be on foreign aid and “the exact contours of what Biden might do, from an assistance standpoint,” remain unclear, Savoy said.

The administration’s level of ambition might have to be narrowed, given the possibility of a Republican-controlled Senate, but a lot will depend on who leads the State Department, Savoy said.

With two seats still undecided in Georgia, the Senate majority will be decided by a pair of runoff elections in January. A Republican-controlled Senate could make it difficult for Biden to appoint key leaders and advance legislative priorities.

“Historically, any significant reform efforts in U.S. development policy — at least those with staying power — have depended on bipartisan support. So this isn’t really new territory, but I think the election would seem to underscore the importance of that,” said Erin Collinson, director of policy outreach at the Center for Global Development.

“The optimistic view is that there could be interest in securing early bipartisan wins at a time of political polarization, and this could be an area for cooperation,” she added.

There is still a lot that Biden could do for global health “administratively,” said Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, in a tweet Thursday. Some of the recommendations include reengaging globally on COVID-19, rejoining the World Health Organization, reinstating WHO funding, rescinding the Mexico City Policy, and once again providing funding to the United Nations Population Fund.

Early priorities

In the early days, a future president Biden will likely overturn the Mexico City Policy, which states that foreign NGOs that receive any U.S. global health funding are prohibited from engaging in abortion-related activities and is typically reversed when a Democrat takes over from a Republican president. He is also likely to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization.

Biden is likely to emphasize addressing climate change early in his administration, which would translate to making climate central in aid policy and is likely to limit the use of development finance for fossil fuels, according to campaign documents.

COVID-19 response will certainly be an early priority as well, including a global response, several experts told Devex. Biden is expected to put USAID in charge of international COVID-19 response, expand the Global Health Security Agenda, and create a Global Health Emergency Board to coordinate crisis response for vulnerable communities, in addition to rejoining and fully funding WHO.

A Biden administration could also push for a more robust response to the pandemic by multilateral development banks, including by pledging emergency support to the World Bank’s International Development Association, which has front-loaded its spending due to COVID-19, Collinson said.

Biden has also made it clear that he would look to tackle democratic backsliding, in part by convening a summit for democracy during his first year in office that would seek to address the issue, create a common agenda, and tackle threats, according to campaign documents.

Democracy and human rights are central to his vision for foreign policy and national security, and both Biden and those around him see these as important issues for the future, Thier said.

“I think we are going to see a reshaping of foreign policy and development policy to support democracy and counter authoritarianism that looks different than anything we’ve seen in a generation,” he said.

Wish list

Experts who spoke to Devex had a number of recommendations for the Biden transition team and for the early days of the administration.

“We urge them, we want to see them move quickly to name and nominate leadership for development agencies,” Savoy said.

The team should interview staff members at USAID, as well as other development agencies, and carefully review some of the policies or procedures that have been changed internally and may need to be reversed, the senior development expert said. Among those changes is a proposal for civil service reform that should be stopped, the expert said.

Biden’s team should also review some of the Trump administration’s marquee programs — including Prosper Africa and the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, the expert said.

While it may take longer than the first 100 days, some in the development community are also calling on a Biden administration to prioritize the creation of a global development strategy that speaks to the roles and responsibilities of each agency, Savoy said.

While some general concerns have emerged about whether Trump will sign executive orders or make policies in the next couple months before the inauguration, the senior development expert said he is not too worried. Policies and executive orders can be undone, and the “bureaucracy is strong enough to withstand most mischief,” the expert said.

Michael Igoe in Burlington contributed to this article.

About the author

  • 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.