Disrupt and compete: How Trump changed US foreign aid

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo by: Tia Dufour / Official White House Photo

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The past three years and eight months have been tumultuous for U.S. development agencies, programs, and professionals.

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Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the U.S. aid community has seen three White House proposals to slash billions in foreign assistance, two additional attempts by the administration to rescind funding that Congress appropriated anyway, a murky “foreign assistance review” that aimed to divide the world between friends and enemies, attacks on multilateral institutions, politically-motivated funding cuts to some countries and politically-motivated humanitarian aid to others, emboldened versions of policies against abortion and family planning, and a combination of high-level vacancies and highly-controversial appointments to political positions within U.S. foreign aid agencies.

During the same period, the U.S. Agency for International Development has undergone a well-regarded reorganization, introduced new tools to expand its partner base, and adopted an organizational vision that revolves around transitioning countries away from an outdated donor-recipient model of aid to partnership. The U.S. government successfully launched a long-sought development finance institution with bipartisan support and a centralized initiative focused on women’s empowerment. Both the foreign aid budget — thanks to the U.S. Congress — and USAID itself have emerged broadly intact as four years of the Trump administration draw to a close.

That mixed record of rhetoric, quiet reforms, and a U.S. foreign assistance effort that found ways to persist through an administration concerned with “America First” has left aid experts wondering how to evaluate — or even characterize — the global development policy of Trump’s White House.

“He’s mixed everything up so much, it’s very difficult to analyze in historical context,” said Andrew Natsios, who led USAID during the George W. Bush administration.

By most accounts, Trump himself had very little involvement in decisions related to foreign aid or global development strategy, according to those familiar with the administration’s approach.

“Did President Trump personally engage in my work? Not really,” said Mark Green, who served as USAID administrator from Aug. 2017 until April this year.

Aid experts are quick to point out that U.S. presidents rarely make global development strategy a major priority.

“The one presidential intervention has been negative intervention, which is to say to use as a stick rather than as a carrot.”

— Andrew Natsios, former administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

“There has not been a doctrine of development by any president. Anybody who tells you that doesn’t get it,” said Natsios.

Yet Trump’s lack of interest in these issues, combined with the rare occasions when they did capture his attention, paint a picture of a presidency that largely disregarded development — and even developing countries — in questions of strategic U.S. interest and foreign policy, except when it carried some personal weight within Trump’s inner circle, or when it might be used as part of a transaction or punishment.

“His philosophy is marked by an absence of philosophy, except in terms of competition and disruption,” said a former administration official, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“I don’t think the president gets into the details of governance … He may know what USAID is vaguely, but I don’t think he knows much about it, and I don’t think he really cares much about it, frankly. It’s not part of his agenda,” said Natsios.

“If we’re talking about a macro-level strategy, I don’t think there’s been one on foreign assistance,” said a Republican development expert, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Political agendas unleashed

Without a strategic framework for development emanating from the White House, the president’s political appointees found unusually large amounts of space in which to advance their own agendas on the foreign assistance front. That arrangement produced both opportunities and risks for the U.S. aid community, depending on who those appointees happened to be, and what they happened to believe.

People around Trump were able to draw on the president’s broad statements and general lack of strategic involvement to make the case for very different policy outcomes — on one hand, a whole-scale cut to foreign aid, and on the other a more nuanced argument for dynamic, evidence-based development partnerships.

“Enter somebody like Mark Green, who is using that disruption to his advantage by helping create the ‘journey to self-reliance,’” said the former official, referring to Green’s broad agenda.

“Would it have gotten as much traction if it wasn’t the only positive thing coming out? Probably not. But he was able to move the agency in a fairly constructive way, because the alternative was what Trump was offering,” the former official added.

“It’s going to be really hard to fix a lot of what Trump broke, but some of it shouldn’t be fixed.”

— Anonymous former Trump administration official

Some observers grant the administration credit for appointing Green, who leveraged his relationships with former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Trump’s former chief of staff Reince Priebus to get the job.

At the same time, Green served an administration that included staunch opponents of foreign assistance, including former budget director Mick Mulvaney, who pushed budget proposals that would have seen global development programs decimated.

“They had a point of view, and they were using Trump’s predilection for disruption to further that point of view. And it’s clear that they actually believed it, because they kept going at it again and again and again,” said the former administration official.

Asked how he tried to redirect those impulses to eliminate foreign assistance within the administration toward something more positive, Green said, “Oftentimes we saw a process that may have been driven by ... those who simply didn't believe in assistance. Our job was to slow people down and say, ‘look, this is what we're actually talking about in terms of what the assistance actually is, and this is where we can go.’”

“And when we spend time doing that — and also powered by the great bipartisan support we got from the Hill — we ended up in a much better place than where we began,” he said, adding, “It took a lot of work.”

A U.S. global health expert, who requested anonymity to speak freely, likened the lack of overarching strategy, and the president’s willingness to give free rein to people with highly-political agendas in exchange for their support to “the Wild West.”

This was particularly apparent on issues related to sexual and reproductive health, the expert said. The administration enabled outspoken members of the White House Domestic Policy Council, usually not involved in foreign policy, to advance their opposition to language supporting sexual and reproductive health in international development discussions to an uncommon degree.

Personality contest

On a few issues, the president did take a personal interest in U.S. foreign assistance programs. Trump often touted his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka’s efforts on women’s empowerment, which led to the creation of the Women's Global Development and Prosperity Initiative.

While most attribute the creation of W-GDP solely to Ivanka Trump’s personal brand as a businesswoman rather than to any broader development philosophy espoused by the Trump administration, the initiative has garnered some positive reviews from development advocates for its whole-of-government approach and engagement with the private sector.

The Republican development expert said this kind of personality-driven policy making was no different from how White House-based initiatives have taken root in past administrations.

“It’s people who come in with a perspective and they get in a position of power and they move their agenda forward,” the expert said.

“[Former USAID administrator] Raj Shah came in with his [agriculture] perspective from Gates and so we end up with Feed the Future. Ivanka came in with women’s empowerment because of her business career so we end up with W-GDP. I don’t think there’s any difference between the two,” the expert added.

Vice President Mike Pence took a similarly involved interest in deploying foreign aid to help religious minorities. Those efforts were often perceived as a heavy-handed campaign by the vice president to please the administration’s Christian base by demonstrating their commitment to assisting persecuted Christian minorities in the Middle East.

With both women’s empowerment and assistance to religious minorities, Green said that what might have begun with personal interest or political constituencies was able to be pushed in the direction of good development programming. In conversations with both Ivanka Trump and Pence, Green told them if USAID were to take on these priorities they would have to be more than, “a passing fancy.”

“In both cases, to their great credit, they said, ‘no, this is real. We're serious. And, you know, we want this to be done in a serious way,’” Green said.

Transactions and sticks

Without the benefit of a well-connected champion in the White House, other aid programs were often subject to Trump’s transactional view of international politics, experts said.

“It’s not a tool of diplomacy in a positive way, it’s a tool of diplomacy in a punitive way,” said Natsios. He cited Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central America based on concerns governments were not doing enough to stop migration, and to the West Bank and Gaza to pressure them into peace talks, as well as a recent effort to suspend Millennium Challenge Corp. funding to Kosovo in pursuit of a peace deal with Serbia.

“The one presidential intervention has been negative intervention, which is to say to use as a stick rather than as a carrot,” Natsios added.

Trump’s transactional, or punitive view of foreign aid has contributed to the administration’s distaste for multilateralism, since that kind of cooperation relies on a commitment to the common good, said the former administration official.

“It’s hard to make the argument about the critical intangibles that the multilateral system can bring — unless you’re willing to read about them, and nobody there was,” the former official said.

Great powers

One issue where some experts feel there might have been a clear crossover between the president’s personal political agenda and a strategic approach to foreign assistance is competition with China, but the White House draws mixed reviews in terms of making that connection.

“Particularly with the DFC, I think there has been some success in creating more support for foreign assistance by more directly tying it to our geopolitical interests,” said the Republican development expert.

On the other hand, many observers lost track of a foreign assistance review that was meant to position U.S. foreign aid agencies for an era of “great power competition” but was never publicly released. Natsios described a leaked version of the document as “completely incoherent,” and said it, “contradicted itself from one page to another.”

Natsios ascribed the administration’s lack of interest in deploying its development tools to compete with China to a worldview that only considers “the relationship between the great powers” and a belief that competition will be primarily centered in East Asia.

“They don’t see the developing world as central to this balance of power theory, and I think that’s why they don’t pay any attention to it,” he said.

“For me, particularly in Africa, it’s a major failure,” he added.

Green said when he joined the administration there was less awareness that competition with China was a global challenge, not a bilateral one, but that this realization was taking hold by the time he left.

“Work in progress,” he said.

For those who fear the politicization of global development that could accompany a shift toward using foreign assistance in a more geostrategic way, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization provides a worrying preview.

“I don’t think this administration came in and said, ‘we’re going to leave the WHO.’ It’s really a China thing,” said Loyce Pace, president and executive director of the Global Health Council.

Now, the politics around WHO may have shifted, she said, warning that the organization could follow in the path of other politicized international bodies like the United Nations Population Fund, which finds its support and opposition “ping-ponging” back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations.

“What’s the next thing China cares about or joins? What if China all of a sudden gives all this money to Gavi and Global Fund? Are we going to stop contributing to those too?” Pace asked.

“I don’t think people are thinking about that,” she added.

‘Some of it shouldn’t be fixed’

Others view Trump’s disruptive influence and his administration’s lack of concern for existing institutions as a potential opportunity for positive change. In some cases, those forces have already enabled reforms that otherwise would not have happened.

When the Trump administration moved to eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corp., it inadvertently lent momentum to efforts to transform that agency into a stronger development finance institution, said the former administration official.

He noted that if Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, his administration’s impulse may be to reverse everything that has occurred during the last four years and restore institutions and relationships to what they were before.

“It’s going to be really hard to fix a lot of what Trump broke, but some of it shouldn’t be fixed,” said the former administration official.

“We might be able to take advantage of the fact that, for whatever reason that he did it, for whatever reason he hated multilateralism — whether it was out of ignorance of understanding the historical context, or ignorance of the advantages the United States gets from the international systems being set up for what they are — some of them were in need of reform,” he said.

“Reform has been really hard to achieve. It’s less hard to achieve when the alternative is nothing,” he added.

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.