Examining Heritage's views on aid as foundation plays key Trump transition role

The Heritage Foundation’s headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue on Capitol Hill. Photo by: Ser Amantio di Nicolao / CC BY-SA

The Heritage Foundation, according to news reports and sources Devex has spoken to, is playing a central role in filling positions in U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. It’s too soon to tell whether those they help select will promote stances outlined in Heritage policy briefs and papers, but it’s clear they may have a significant influence on the next administration.

Alan Fleischmann, the president and CEO of Laurel Strategies, an advisory and communications firm, and other sources, confirmed for Devex that the Heritage Foundation is fielding applications for many of the 1,000s of positions the Trump administration will need to fill. Politico has called the Heritage Foundation Trump’s “shadow transition team.”

Devex has examined the Heritage Foundation's records to see what policy recommendations the group has made about foreign aid and development.

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In a 2016 issues brief the Heritage Foundation wrote: “Targeted U.S. political, security, and humanitarian assistance can be an effective foreign policy tool. U.S. security assistance has made direct and short-term contributions to national security. Programs to combat hunger and reduce maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS help to maintain America’s credibility as a moral world leader.”

But the brief goes on to criticize traditional official development assistance, which it said has not achieved sustainable progress for people in developing countries.

“With rare exceptions, traditional ODA has tended to reinforce the problems that undermine sustainable development and dilute the impact of efforts to address the consequences of economic stagnation, such as illiteracy and gender inequity,” the brief continued.

It appears that Republicans in Congress are already looking at a somewhat different approach to how they will use aid as a tool of foreign policy. The spending bill passed Dec. 6 gave the U.S. State Department $300 million to help migrants and refugees but stipulated that none of it could be spent to bring refugees to the U.S.

The Heritage Foundation’s recommendations prefer funding channeled through the State Department and emphasize the role of rigorously measured programs and private-sector driven aid.

Here are more specifics about what that brief and other reports from the past several years released by the organization have recommended for foreign aid.

US foreign aid delivery

While the foundation recommends many funding cuts to foreign aid in general, including eliminating USAID’s entire development assistance program, which is about $2.6 billion today, it advocates sustaining funding for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corp.

More funding should be channeled through “more modern and focused delivery systems,” such as the MCC, it says, though in one brief the foundation wrote that the original MCC model has been weakened during President Barack Obama’s administration. MCC requires countries to meet a set of criteria in order to qualify for funding, which is delivered through market-based mechanisms.

As part of new foreign assistance legislation to transform how aid is delivered, the Heritage Foundation proposes phasing out USAID. “The lessons learned about the ineffectiveness of its programs over decades indicate that it is time for a new approach,” according to a Heritage issue brief in 2016.

As part of those reforms the Development Credit Authority, the Complex Crises Fund, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and funding for development assistance to Europe and Eurasia also need to be phased out, according to the brief. Instead of delivering aid through USAID, funding should be given to other U.S. agencies including the State Department and MCC.

United Nations

The Heritage Foundation has a series of recommendations for U.S. engagement at the United Nations — from the size of the security council, to tieing U.S. aid to political support at the U.N. and increasing U.S. oversight over U.N. agencies and spending.

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Obama’s foreign policy has put an emphasis on diplomacy and worked with international organizations such as the U.N. where the U.S. had pushed for inclusive policies, including a broader recognition of LGBTI rights. The Heritage Foundation appears to be more skeptical and more critical of the U.N.

“Although the U.N. Charter proclaims that one of the U.N.’s main goals is to promote better standards of living and freedom, in practice the organization falls short on both counts,” Terry Miller, the director of the Center for Data Analysis and the Center for Trade and Economics at the Heritage Foundation wrote in a book excerpt published on the foundation’s website. “It eschews the proven development strategies of classic liberal economics for aid-focused plans that almost certainly do more harm than good because they emphasize and enhance the role of government and central planning.”

The U.N. system, including peacekeeping operations, need an overhaul, according to a Heritage report by Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at the foundation.

There needs to be greater accountability in U.N. peacekeeping operations and there should be a move to end missions that don’t seem to be making progress or shift expenses to the nations seeking the continued support, according to the report. To that end the mandate review should be revived to eliminate redundant, outdated activities and there should be greater enforcement of consequences for corruption, sexual exploitation and other violations done by U.N. peacekeepers.

The United States should work to maintain and expand its influence at the U.N., including resisting the expansion of the Security Council, according to the foundation. The Heritage Foundation has also advocated tying development assistance to support for U.S. priorities at the U.N. In the past 10 U.N. General Assembly sessions about 69 percent of recipients of U.S. aid recipients have voted against the U.S. most of the time on nonconsensus votes that were deemed important by the U.S. State Department, the Heritage Foundation wrote in an issue paper.

U.N. reforms need to include giving major donors more direct influence on budget decisions so that the U.S. can choose what activities to support and when to defund programs it considers ineffective or less important. The U.S. and other member states should also have more oversight including full access to all internal documents about U.N. agencies, the foundation has written.

The Heritage Foundation has also put forth specific recommendations about specific U.N. agencies including: more oversight of the U.N. Development Program’s budget to improve transparency and avoid duplication of efforts; stop contributions to the United Nations Population Fund; improve transparency at UNICEF; and end funding to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

The U.N. should also have a more serious conversation about a private sector-led approach to development and encourage trade and investment, Heritage reports said.

Trump has nominated South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The pick of Haley, who has little foreign policy experience, provides few hints as to a policy direction at the U.N.

Issue recommendations

The Heritage Foundation has also proposed policies for several specific issue areas, from food assistance to human trafficking.

The foundation recommends improving food assistance and eventually cutting the budget as reforms improve efficiency. The reforms should eliminate wasteful spending and not only buy food grown in the U.S. if there are more affordable options, and reject the proposed subsidy for U.S. shippers sending food aid, and eliminate “monetization programs.”

On providing aid to Muslim countries, the U.S. should prioritize supporting governments and groups who have a history of countering extremism. The Office of Democracy and Governance at USAID should implement programs that look for ties between religious and cultural practices and democracy, according to a 2011 backgrounder by Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the foundation. 

To tackle human trafficking, the U.S. should work with countries who have shown a willingness to implement best practices to limit trafficking and overall limit the number of countries and having a more transparent process for criteria and progress, a 2015 Heritage backgrounder by Curtis said. The report went on to recommend that the MCC model and selection criteria be used in providing anti-trafficking aid and that there be a greater focus on training law enforcement and judges.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

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.