Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by: cytis / Pixabay

CANBERRA — Aid and politics go hand in hand. Political turmoil can stoke humanitarian crises, affect the environment for NGOs delivering services, and impact funding for humanitarian and development services. And in 2018, politics appears to be impacting aid more than ever.

Here are some of the key events that have shaped the past year and setting the world on its political path for 2019.

The politics of Trump

Since Donald Trump assumed office as president of the United States in January 2017, he has been making an outsized impact on aid, development, and humanitarian agendas. On day three in office, he signed an executive order reinstating the global gag rule, impacting the delivery of sexual and reproductive health programs globally. 2018 has been no different — but this year has seen him use aid and assistance as a threat.

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Since June, Trump has threatened the future of foreign aid to Central American countries — focusing on Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — if a flow of refugees continued into the U.S. And in October, this continued.

In September, at the United Nations General Assembly, Trump’s threats were also on show. He said that while the U.S. was the largest giver of foreign aid, few countries gave anything in return. As a result, his administration would be “taking a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance.”

“We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” Trump said.

To date, such statements have been threats with Congress making the final say on USAID budgets and country allocations. But this does not mean Trump’s words do not impact the policies and directions of U.S. Agency for International Development, with USAID now focused on transitioning economies to self-sustainability for future economic partnerships as well as positioning U.S. assistance in opposition to that of China.

With Trump now announcing he will be pulling troops from Syria, many are bracing for an impact on humanitarian responses and vulnerable populations.

China’s prioritization of aid on foreign policy

In China, 2018 has been an important year as they push to be a larger player in development assistance with the establishment of the China International Development Cooperation Agency, or CIDCA, to centralize the delivery of foreign aid.

The plans were announced in March as part of an overhaul of Cabinet, placing a greater focus on the role China will play in global politics. In April former deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, Wang Xiaotao, was given the job of establishing and running the new agency. His former experience in the delivery of the Belt and Road Initiative made him a suitable candidate for the job with observers suggesting this would be a focus for CIDCA.

There has been limited insight into the role and policies of the new agency, including whether it will improve transparency and which countries or areas of development will be the focus. But their new website provides information on the range of meetings Xiaotao and other CIDCA leaders have been having since April, which includes the Ford Foundation, UNHCR, as well as foreign ministers and political leaders from all over the world.

Brexit still raises questions for aid policy

The referendum in which the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union took place in 2016. But this year, the reality of Brexit set in with negotiations for the departure of the U.K. working toward finalization.

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Observers fear the U.K. could experience an exodus of aid expertise as organizations hurry to firm up their presence in Europe.

The vote on the deal was meant to occur before Christmas. But with backlash from Prime Minister Theresa May’s own Conservative Party, it has been temporarily shelved.

That hasn’t stopped the questions on what it means for the U.K.’s aid program.

Currently, the U.K. channels some aid funds through EU mechanisms — a total of £1.5 billion with two-thirds through the official EU budget and the other third through the European Development Fund.

EDF and a range of other rolling commitments that are redirected through EU channels will continue receiving funds from the U.K. until 2020. After that is still to be decided with U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt saying the U.K. will use the opportunity to create “more flexibility to consider how we use our aid budget.”

For NGOs, the potential impact on funding is already seeing many create a base outside of London to help maintain funding as well as influence in development discussions.

But without a signed deal, the full impact is still to be determined.

Elections and new leaders impacting development agendas

Elections, leadership changes, and surprise bouts have seen a range of new heads of state emerge in 2018 that will doubtless influence development agendas.

In May, Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as the seventh prime minister of Malaysia as leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition — and at 93 becoming the world’s oldest leader. The job of prime minister was one he had previously held from 1981 to 2003 as leader of the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The vote marked the first regime change in the country’s history, coming on the heels of massive government corruption scandals.

Rural regions were part of the push for change — and how the change will impact policies and programs within rural areas will be closely watched.

In July, the re-election of Hun Sen as prime minister of Cambodia created international controversy, with questions on the country’s democratic processes and human rights.

The election process was called a “sham” by political observers. Late in 2017, the opposition leader was arrested for treason, followed by the opposition party being dissolved. The election saw almost 9 percent of votes cast invalid — a protest vote against the government.

Former Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was among political leaders condemning the process and results.

“Freedom of expression and association underpin democratic societies. Australia is concerned the election took place in an environment where not all political parties, civil society organizations, and media could operate freely.”

In the months since, Western donors have sought to pressure the government to allow the opposition to re-emerge, most notably with Europe’s announcement of a withdrawal of trade preferences.

In Brazil, the October national elections saw the ascendency of far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro. Dubbed by media as the “Brazilian Donald Trump,” he brings with him a focus on protectionism and militarization and creates a potential risk for LGBTQ people, women, and minorities who he has previously attacked.

Corruption scandals, economic downturn, and rising violence were among the domestic factors leading to Brazilians to vote for a person bringing an anti-establishment sentiment. Bolsonaro’s policies and actions are expected to be closely watched by global political observers for their potential impacts on vulnerable groups.

In Australia, the now traditional mid-term knifing of a sitting prime minister saw a new victim in Malcolm Turnbull — and the globally unknown Scott Morrison rise to the ranks in August.

With this change through the ranks came a dramatic shift in foreign policy. Bishop resigned as foreign minister with former defense minister Marise Payne taking the ranks. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells resigned as minister for international development and the Pacific with the role downgraded to assistant minister — and Anne Ruston taking on the job.

Payne’s defense focus immediately impacted aid. Morrison announced new programs to better focus on engagement with the Pacific including the establishment of the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, stronger military and policing engagement, a focus on sports for development, and expanded Australian broadcasting in Pacific nations. The cost appears to be coming from a reduction in multilateral replenishments.

But with another election to take place in Australia in 2019, the aid and development story is set to change once again.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.