A man looks at the U.S. Capitol Building. Photo by: REUTERS / Carlos Jasso

WASHINGTON — While development legislation has seen success in recent years, including several bills making it across the finish line in the U.S. budget deal passed in late 2019, 2020 may be a more difficult year for foreign aid priorities in Congress.

“The headwinds are strong,” said Tom Hart, executive director for North America at the One Campaign, adding that with both the presidential impeachment and 2020 election, the environment will not be conducive to passing much legislation. “The capacity and appetite for bipartisan initiatives on any subject is thin.”

Several foreign aid issues have provided opportunities for bipartisan cooperation and success in past years, and lawmakers may still work to push them through, Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, told Devex.

“The capacity and appetite for bipartisan initiatives on any subject is thin.”

— Tom Hart, executive director for North America, One Campaign

O’Keefe admits he may be more optimistic than others but said that he “refuses to give up on the potential of advancing some of these bills,” adding that lawmakers may want to prove they can still get things done.

While it may be hard to find bipartisan middle ground and the time to pass much legislation, there are a few bills and issues that the development community is advocating for or watching.

The budget

One of the key areas where foreign aid advocates will focus their efforts this year is the budget, with most expecting the Trump administration to once again suggest steep cuts to foreign aid and then Congress to push back.

“We very much hope we don’t see radical changes coming from Congress in 2021,” Hart said. “We are hoping and urging Congress to reject cuts despite the fractious environment.”

In addition to ensuring that there aren’t dramatic cuts, some advocates will be looking at any conditions put on foreign assistance, including support for poverty, humanitarian and development accounts on human trafficking actions, or religious liberty, O’Keefe said. While those are important policy concerns, it’s important that those prescriptions don’t undermine assistance, he said.

Many of the development policy watchers Devex spoke to also said that they expect to see the administration try to rescind money from foreign aid accounts again this year and that they would work with Congress to push back against such a move.

The ILLICIT CASH Act

The Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, aims to improve banking transparency and address challenges that nonprofits have faced in response to bank de-risking.

As banks have worked to reduce risk, they have opted to stop certain types of lending — specifically, those that would have necessitated additional compliance with requirements related to money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism — rather than continuing such lending and having to prove they were abiding by the terms. This has made it more difficult for nonprofit organizations working around the world to get money where it is needed.

Some two-thirds of U.S.-based nonprofit organizations with international operations have difficulties with financial access. They are often unable to send funds internationally through transparent and regulated financing channels, according to the bill. When banks de-risk, it “ultimately drives money into less transparent channels” and “increases the risk of money falling into the wrong hands,” the bill says.

The ILLICIT CASH Act calls on federal agencies to give guidance that would enable financial institutions to better provide services to nonprofit organizations and work with other donor states to create risk-sharing across governments, financial institutions, and nonprofit organizations. It would also create beneficial ownership reporting requirements to improve the transparency of corporate structures, thereby increasing insight into illicit financial flows and the use of shell companies.

“Beneficial ownership companies are one of the tools used to steal money otherwise used for development and poverty alleviation,” Hart said, adding that he believes the bipartisan bill has a reasonable shot of being passed.

The Global Child Thrive Act

The Global Child Thrive Act, introduced in 2019, passed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee in December and awaits a vote in the House and action in the Senate.

Introduced by Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, the act would require the U.S. government to “develop and implement policies to advance early childhood development, to provide assistance for orphans and other vulnerable children in developing countries, and for other purposes.”

The U.S. government should focus new efforts and attention on saving children’s lives, the bill says, and should support the healthy development of children’s brains, methods of delivering parent training and education on care, and cross-sectoral coordination to promote early childhood development, which is “essential for the efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability of all early childhood development initiatives.”

The act has both House and Senate versions with co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle and builds on the lessons of Catholic Relief Services programs with young children and early childhood development, O’Keefe said. The bill has “moved quickly so far” and will be a big priority for the organization, he added.

Other issues to watch

There are a handful of other issues that development advocates will be working toward in the year ahead — from global health priorities to climate.

The One campaign will be pressing Congress and the Trump administration for a strong pledge related to Gavi’s replenishment and then looking for that to be reflected in the budget bill for fiscal year 2021.

CRS is working with members of Congress to consider the possible benefits of legislation that would push more aggressive policy to help farmers address food security challenges related to climate change, O’Keefe said.

There are also discussions around potential legislation to create a strategy for U.S. response in the Sahel region, aimed at addressing both the humanitarian crisis stemming from increases in violence and the root causes of that violence, according to O’Keefe.

“It’s going to be a super difficult environment,” he said. But O’Keefe added that CRS is developing its strategy, building consensus, and working for long-term goals so that, even if legislation doesn’t move this year, it might in the next Congress.

“The only certainty now is uncertainty itself,” O’Keefe said.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor 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.