Donald Trump, nominee of the Republican Party for president of the United States in the 2016 election. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

In recent months, global development policymaking has stood out in the American political landscape — because, unlike many other kinds of policymaking, it has actually happened.

Lawmakers from both parties have found uncommon success reaching compromise and overcoming Capitol Hill’s infamous gridlock to sponsor and pass development-related bills on energy, agriculture, the internet, and a range of other issues related to global health and poverty.

But as the presidential election draws nearer and as a bitter campaign enters its final, frenzied stretch, can that spirit of bipartisan cooperation hold together? Many in the aid community are holding their breath and hoping that the political forces unleashed in this election cycle don’t erode the foundations of this surprising bipartisan success story.

In the current Congress, five bills dealing with U.S. development programs have found their way to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature. These have created new requirements for aid transparency and accountability, authorized two of the administration’s signature development initiatives, supported girls’ rights, and promoted efforts to enhance water security. This at a time when every U.S. budget negotiation — including the current one — seems to have the potential to leave American democracy in ruins.

Last month the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed two more bills. One would expand internet connectivity in developing countries, and the other aims to support access to basic education. U.S. aid advocates have celebrated their rare luck and what it means for the global goals they pursue, even as the general public seems not to notice.

“It doesn’t fit into the narrative of a broken Congress when you talk about positive things that are happening — and it especially doesn’t fit when the legislation that we’re talking about impacts world affairs,” said Florida Rep. Ted Deutch at a U.S. Global Leadership Coalition event during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia earlier this year.

There are some big qualifiers to this success story. Many legislative victories have been years in the making. Some of the bills that made it through this Congress languished in previous sessions, hung up in partisan battles over issues such as support for coal power projects and authorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Meanwhile, the U.S. foreign aid budget has remained relatively flat in the last decade, generally hovering between $40 and $50 billion.

Still, the U.S. development community has enjoyed relatively stable support from some of Congress’ most visible leaders, including Republicans Kay Granger, Bob Corker, Ed Royce, Ted Poe and Lindsay Graham, as well as Democrats including Nita Lowey, Patrick Leahy, Chris Coons and Eliot Engel. The Congressional committees that deal with foreign aid policy and appropriations sometimes look like oases of bipartisan cooperation and legislative success in a desert of disfunction.

Now, into that rare example of civility and compromise, the 2016 presidential election has introduced two starkly different variables.

Where they stand

No presidential candidate in history has brought comparable development knowledge and experience as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even her detractors don’t doubt Clinton’s belief in robust global development efforts and U.S. leadership in the institutions that deliver them. Clinton was a driving force behind initiatives such as the food security investment program Feed the Future, around which the current congress has rallied with bipartisan authorization bills — despite Republican congressman Paul Ryan’s attempt four years ago to eliminate the program entirely.

Clinton is known as a policy wonk, whose grasp of the details impresses her fans and annoys her detractors. People close to her campaign say she would likely stay the course on current U.S. global development policy — though her critics among the foreign policy establishment worry Clinton might try to tie U.S. development programs too closely to short-term U.S. diplomatic interests.

Donald Trump’s views on U.S. foreign aid and the role America should play in fighting global poverty are comparatively vague and improvisational. He also doesn’t get asked about them very often.

An April 17 town hall yielded Trump’s most direct comment on the subject of global development. Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren raised the issue in Indianapolis. “What would the foreign aid policy be of a Trump administration?” she asked him.

Van Susteren asked Trump about Pakistan, where development assistance is something of a bargaining chip in the war on terror, and about humanitarian funding to countries facing crisis or disaster.

On Pakistan Trump replied: “It’s semi-unstable and we don't want to see total instability. And it's not that much [money], relatively speaking. And we have a little bit of a good relationship. I think I would try and keep it, and that's very much against my grain to say that … You know, we give them money. We help them out. But if we don't, I think that would go in the other side of the ledger and that could really be a disaster.”

Regarding humanitarian relief, Trump was less certain. “I would try. I would try so hard to keep some of these countries going. But Greta, we are a debtor nation,” he said, before returning to a common theme of his campaign — the danger supposedly posed to the United States by refugees fleeing the Syrian crisis.

Trump’s answers were nowhere near as extreme as his policy positions on other subjects. It’s not impossible to imagine Trump proposing to abolish the U.S. Agency for International Development altogether, to end funding to Muslim countries, or to demand countries refund the foreign assistance they’ve received. The global development community might have taken heart in his relatively moderate views on foreign aid — at least as he described them in April.

Trump’s off-the-cuff proposals are often starting points to negotiation, not hard commitments. As Diana Ohlbaum, an independent consultant and former congressional staffer, put it, “We don’t really know what Donald Trump thinks about foreign aid or development, who he would choose to advise him … or whether he would listen to his advisers.”

While Trump’s supporters seem to enjoy his unpredictability, others see less to admire. Trump’s inconsistency is a sign of deep ignorance and inexperience with the basic form and function of political institutions, they argue.

“His approach to development would probably have to start with someone explaining what the U.S. Agency for International Development does,” said John Norris, executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at Center for American Progress.

The rise of the ‘anti-globalists’

While it may be impossible to say what, if anything, Trump would do as commander-in-chief, a deeply skeptical, inwardly focused worldview has fed his rise to the top of the Republican party.

Americans way of global involvement. Source: Pew Research Center

“I’m a reader of polls, exit polls,” said Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of USGLC, a bipartisan network of U.S. foreign assistance supporters. “If you look at the primaries, both on the right and the left, in this year’s exit polls there were some wakeup calls and some warning signs ... they said that there is a portion of the voters in America today that are concerned about America’s engagement in the world.”

Schrayer sees three broad categories of opinion. One of them rejects American international engagement altogether, while a second embraces it enthusiastically. But on Nov. 9, the day after the election, the development community would be wise to acknowledge and engage a third group, Schrayer said.

“A big portion of this country, I think, is going to say, ‘we can be engaged in the world, but we’re questioning how it is benefiting us.’ And that’s where that kind of angry, concerned economic questioning is — and we in the development community better figure out how to reach out and talk and engage with them,” she said.

A poll from the Pew Research Center in May found that 57 percent of Americans think their country should deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs. The same poll found that 41 percent of Americans believe the U.S. does “too much” when it comes to solving “world problems.”

These results are actually somewhat less anti-internationalist than the results of a similar poll conducted in 2013, when American distaste for foreign interventions was near its peak. The difference today is that these views serve as the political foundation for a presidential candidate likely to garner close to half the popular vote.

The results can be partially chalked up to misinformation. Americans regularly overestimate the amount their government spends on foreign assistance — on average by about 20 times the actual amount. Yet a large portion of the population also looks at America’s role in a globalized economy and international security architecture with alarm — and the champion for that alarm is Donald Trump.

Another Pew poll showed that Democrats and Republicans are growing increasingly divided over their opinion of the United Nations. In 1990, 68 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats held favorable views of the U.N. In 2016, only 43 percent of Republicans said they regard the U.N. favorably, while 80 percent of Democrats do.

Partisan gap on views of the U.N. have widened over time in the U.S. Source: Pew Research Center

Opposition to issues including immigration, refugee resettlement, trade agreements, and multilateral institutions has coalesced into a distinctive worldview — the “anti-globalism” Trump has built his campaign on.

If these ideas move closer to the political mainstream, garnering more legitimacy from Trump’s candidacy, they could chip away at the existing bipartisan belief that global development leadership and U.S. foreign assistance programs bolster — rather than undermine — America’s standing in the world.

USGLC has met with more than 100 candidates around the country, Schrayer said, and she is optimistic about the “hunger” most of them have shown to talk and learn about American foreign policy. In the 2012 and 2014 elections, a large number of candidates did not even include foreign policy among the priority issues listed on their websites. Now, almost all of them have a drop down menu that links to their views on the subject, Schrayer said.

Others take solace in the fact that Trump’s movement hasn’t infiltrated the halls of Congress yet. Trump is still the outsider candidate, railing against both party establishments. Even though he draws large crowds to his campaign rallies, it’s hard to point to instances where he’s compelled current lawmakers to act differently.

“The rhetoric of the Trump campaign has been nativist and rejectionist … but it hasn’t necessarily brought the party along with him,” Norris said.

“Would that anger and divisiveness from the campaign transfer over into how he actually runs things? Some of it probably would. Some of it, we have no idea,” he added.

When cooler heads prevail

On Capitol Hill, uncertainty about the next president’s agenda has yet to inspire panic among the development-minded.

According to a former Hill staffer, who agreed to speak anonymously, there isn’t a lot of trepidation about the fate of bipartisanship among those who work on development issues in Congress. Leaders in both parties who shape aid legislation are committed to a market-based approach to development, the staffer said, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere or changing their views significantly anytime soon.

“I can’t tell you who the next president is going to be, but I can tell you about the makeup of our foreign affairs committee,” the staffer said.

The biggest unknown is whether the next U.S. president will arrive with that same consensus view. While bipartisan agreement over foreign aid looks reasonably secure on Capitol Hill, the staffer said, it’s not impossible to imagine future conflicts between the legislative and executive branches.

Whoever wins November’s election will play a big role in shaping the federal budget, through his or her budget request submitted to Congress. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Hill will want that money going in the same direction, the staffer said.

“People up here are really thinking about, how do we use technology to advance our goals? How do we work with the private sector?” the staffer said, adding it is hard to imagine the current congressional leadership shifting back to a major focus on large, government-run development programs.

On the question of what has enabled the current spirit of bipartisanship on aid programs to survive, the staffer was unequivocal: “leadership.”

But it would also be a mistake to overstate the depth of lawmakers’ commitment to cooperating on these issues, said New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen at the USGLC Democratic Convention event. Bipartisan cooperation on foreign aid exists, but only to an extent.

“There are a couple of caveats. One is cost,” Shaheen said, citing Congress’s unwillingness — until Wednesday — to pass a $1.1 billion bill to support Zika virus prevention and response efforts.

“We’re very willing to look at things in a bipartisan way ... if we don’t actually have to pony up the dollars that are going to make it happen,” she added.

There is also uncertainty about who Trump would usher into the U.S. development arena if he were elected — and whether his political appointments might inject more radical views into foreign assistance policy discussions. In August, 50 Republican foreign policy and national security professionals signed a letter declaring they would not serve in a Trump administration.

Brian Atwood, who served as USAID administrator under former President Bill Clinton, said that many of the other former officials he talks to — from both parties — would never serve under Trump.

“What kind of an administration will he have if all of these mainstream, moderate Republicans refuse to join him on the foreign policy side?” Atwood posited. “That worries me a great deal. I have no idea. If it’s going to be more shooting from the hip as he does every day, I have more worries than just for USAID. I have worries for the entire foreign policy establishment of the United States.”

While many in the U.S. aid community say they need to do a better job telling their stories and connecting with the American public, global development’s saving grace might be its ability to fly under the radar. The first debate between Trump and Clinton saw the candidates spar on trade deals and national security tactics, but foreign assistance strategies rarely come under fire. Ironically, if U.S. development programs avoid the theatrical acrimony of presidential debates, they might benefit from more constructive disagreements.

“As long as foreign aid stays out of the headlines and off the campaign trail, it will continue to be fertile ground for bipartisanship and thoughtful, informed debate,” Ohlbaum said. “It’s a subject that’s very easy to demagogue, but when cooler heads prevail, they usually do the right thing — or at least as close to the right thing as our political system allows.”

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About the author

  • 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.