Exclusive: 'Haphazard' White House crackdown on human trafficking disrupts aid

A health worker wearing Ebola protection gear at the Alliance for International Medical Action Ebola treatment center in Beni, DRC. Photo by: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s desire to crack down on global human trafficking may restrict U.S. efforts to fight Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The White House’s decision to enforce tighter aid restrictions on countries that do not meet anti-trafficking criteria — and a lack of transparency from the administration about how those decisions are being made — has led to confusion and uncertainty about which programs will be allowed to continue, and which will be suspended, Devex has learned.

“Embassies and missions are applying an unclear policy in a haphazard and inconsistent manner.”

— Brian Wanko, policy manager, InterAction

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, that concern spilled over into a discussion about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s evolving strategy to combat the escalating Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC.

Senator Robert Menendez questioned USAID Administrator Mark Green about the agency’s plan to broaden its activities in Ebola-affected communities, and whether that plan would be permitted under the Trump administration’s unusually strict interpretation of a law designed to fight human trafficking.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the U.S. Department of State designates countries to three different tiers depending on their commitment to preventing people trafficking. These designations are laid out in the annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, and countries placed in the highest tier — Tier 3 — are subject to U.S. aid restrictions.

As the number of Ebola cases has surged past 1,500 — with over 1,000 deaths — and responders face violent resistance in parts of eastern DRC, USAID plans to implement “a new strategy to improve community engagement and trust through development activities to foster access for health workers,” Menendez shared at the hearing.

The potential problem is that DRC’s status as a “Tier 3” country implies that without a presidential waiver — which President Trump elected not to issue the country for fiscal year 2019 — nonhumanitarian assistance should be prohibited.

In a statement, Menendez pointed to a lack of clarity from the administration on “which activities should be restricted due to TIP sanctions,” and he suggested that he has heard little assurance that the expanded activities USAID plans to pursue in Ebola-affected parts of DRC would be permitted under the administration’s stricter approach.

“I’m concerned ... that the decision to suspend nonhumanitarian assistance under the administration’s strict interpretation … of DRC’s Trafficking in Persons Tier 3 designation is going to prevent [US]AID from successfully employing this strategy,” Menendez said Wednesday.

“Has the White House approved the strategy to reduce community resistance [to Ebola treatment and prevention]?” he asked Green.

“It’s still being finalized, but I think … we’ve reached awareness, and we’re pushing a much more aggressive approach. It’s not been finalized yet,” Green responded.

On Tuesday, in an effort to ensure USAID can implement its own strategy, Menendez introduced a bill that would grant the administrator broad authority to carry out activities in DRC and neighboring countries, “including assistance intended to lower community resistance to interventions that the administrator assesses will facilitate efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak.”

“I fully support the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but the sanctions authorized by that law were never meant to cost innocent lives,” Menendez said in a statement.

‘Haphazard and inconsistent’

The Trump administration’s heavy-handed approach to human trafficking-related aid restrictions has reverberated beyond DRC.

On Nov. 29, President Trump issued a “presidential determination,” which laid out which countries would see nonhumanitarian aid cut off in fiscal year 2019. They included: Belarus, Belize, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Comoros, the Republic of the Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Laos, Mauritania, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela.

The determination also set out which of those countries would receive waivers to allow certain activities deemed to be in the U.S. national interest, or consistent with the goals of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, to continue.

That same day, Ivanka Trump, first daughter and senior adviser to the president, published an op-ed in the Washington Post, describing the harder line the White House was taking on countries that have not met their obligations.

“This administration will no longer use taxpayer dollars to support governments that consistently fail to address trafficking,” she wrote, explaining that the president would limit the number of “national-interest waivers” and restrict certain types of foreign assistance for nearly two dozen governments of countries identified by the State Department as Tier 3.

“The most urgent types of assistance to these countries will continue, including humanitarian aid and lifesaving global health programs such as HIV treatment and Ebola preparedness and response. But the new restrictions will hold these governments accountable while providing further incentive for them to live up to their responsibility to end this scourge,” Ivanka Trump wrote.

Development advocates, however, say they have found it difficult to understand how — and by whom — those humanitarian, lifesaving, and global health exceptions are being determined on a project-by-project basis.

“We hear frustration from NGO implementing partners working across many different sectors. Embassies and missions are applying an unclear policy in a haphazard and inconsistent manner,” Brian Wanko, policy manager at InterAction, wrote to Devex.

“NGOs notice different standards between countries and a lack of communication and clarity in the decision making process. This is creating an adverse impact on assistance and actually impeding successful efforts,” Wanko wrote.

Neither USAID nor the State Department responded to inquiries in time for publication of this article, but Devex obtained a State Department press guidance document from November, which describes how officials should respond in the event they receive questions about the president’s “trafficking in persons” determination.

“The restrictions are targeted to put pressure on governments, but will be applied in a way that is mindful of the impact on peoples’ lives who are served by our life-saving services, particularly vulnerable populations in greatest need,” the document reads.

The next ‘rescission’?

Part of the challenge in trying to clarify which projects can and cannot move forward has been a lack of clarity about how the administration is defining “humanitarian” in its waiver decisions, Devex has learned.

“We want to make sure this is not another weird way for the administration to get its way to cut off foreign assistance and circumvent Congress’ will.”

—  Democratic Senate aide

“Our concern is the lack of transparency that has been evidenced by the implementation of the [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] restrictions, and also the lack of clarity in the buildings about what assistance is or is not being cut,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told Devex.

In August, the White House Office of Management and Budget considered using an uncommon budget process known as “rescission” to reclaim billions of dollars Congress had already appropriated for U.S. foreign aid programs.

“We want to make sure this is not another weird way for the administration to get its way to cut off foreign assistance and circumvent Congress’ will,” the Senate aide said.

The State Department’s press guidance anticipated this concern.

“Some critics will say the White House has been targeting the State Department for funding reductions, and the President’s decision has little to do with combating human trafficking. What is your response to that?” one of the potential questions reads.

The press guidance notes that TVPA restrictions, “do not result in a reduction to the overall funding available for foreign assistance,” and that “assistance not used for Tier 3 countries would be used for other foreign assistance purposes.”

The next “Trafficking in Persons” report is scheduled to appear in June, and countries currently placed on a Tier 2 “watch list” could find themselves downgraded to Tier 3 unless they show greater commitment to fighting human trafficking.

That raises the possibility that more development programs could be affected if the administration takes a similarly hard-line approach to issuing waivers for the next fiscal year.

Update, May 9, 2019: After publication of this story, USAID Acting Spokesperson Tom Babington provided the following comment.

USAID is using funds from the International Disaster Assistance (IDA) account for the response to Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which the restrictions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) do not affect.  Additionally, as we look to make other investments in Ebola preparedness and implement broader community engagement strategies, the Administration is discussing how to address the TVPA restrictions.

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.