How to defend aid in the Trump era: Try national security, business, and faith

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

SEATTLE — In late February, when the Trump administration was poised to unveil a budget of deep cuts to the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals put pen to paper in defense of foreign assistance. “Now is not the time to retreat,” the letter to the U.S. Congress, signed by over 120 military leaders, concluded.

The letter was cited by both sides of the political spectrum in Congress, from the conservative Freedom Caucus to the left-leaning Progressive Caucus. Bill Gates quoted it in a TIME op/ed defending foreign aid, as did World Bank President Jim Kim in a recent National Press Club appearance.

“I couldn’t believe [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell quoted it three times,” recalled John Glenn, policy director of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which organized the letter. “The impact from that letter has exceeded anything I could have imagined.”

With State Department morale low from unfilled staff positions and ambassadorships while rumors swirl around Washington that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his way out the door to be replaced by a hawkish hardliner, this national security approach may be one of the most effective strategies to defend foreign assistance, Glenn last week told a summit of global development leaders and professionals.

The Trump administration and its “America First” policy agenda has caused advocates for foreign assistance to rethink their arguments as they attempt to make the case for aid. But if one door closes, another opens, numerous sector experts said at the Global Washington conference, citing an increased opportunity for faith-based organizations to also speak up for development assistance at a time when evangelical Christians have the ear of the White House via Vice President Mike Pence.

“There are conservative Christian reasons for supporting foreign assistance and there is a strong constituency in the United States that supports strong foreign assistance for a better, safer world,” said World Vision USA President Richard Stearns, describing his Christian organization’s approach to lobbying Republican members of Congress. “We’re trying to use our leadership platform to influence policy in the U.S.”

Going after Congress, rather than President Donald Trump, is also a vital strategy that respects basic U.S. civics. Under the U.S. constitution, only Congress has the authority to pass legislation relating to fiscal expenditures, which means that Trump’s budget proposals are suggestions, not something that on its own will get an up or down vote. “Congress loves to say they have the ‘power of the purse’ and that is no more true than this year,” Glenn said.

“The national security message opens the door, but the business message gets people to walk through the door and stay.”

— John Glenn, policy director of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

But lobbying congressional leaders comes with its own pitfalls. When elected officials return to their home districts, they often host public meetings with their constituents known as town halls. In recent years some of those have turned raucous, leading congresspeople to host fewer of them. That has made elected representatives leery of any kind of public meeting in their home district, even carefully tailored ones on a topic such as foreign assistance.

“It’s harder today to do events with Congress in an era of fake news where there are alternative facts,” Glenn said, “issues of trust come up.” But the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which includes a mixture of name-brand businesses and social-impact NGOs, has successfully navigated that tightrope by making the economic case for foreign assistance alongside the national security one.

“The national security message opens the door, but the business message gets people to walk through the door and stay,” Glenn said. He cited a recent event in Wisconsin where three local chambers of commerce sent representatives to a meeting with a senior development agency representative, as they see foreign assistance helping to develop a global marketplace for Wisconsin-made goods.

Such meetings help combat an old saw that members of Congress like to repeat: There’s no domestic constituency for international affairs. With the rising influence of voters in the conservative Christian heartland region of the U.S., World Vision International has sought to build that constituency in a difficult political climate.

On the one hand, many churches already participate in their own kind of grassroots foreign assistance through missions abroad and sponsoring children, which makes the cognitive leap toward institutionalized support less of a barrier. On the other hand, “a lot of conservative people have created this identity for themselves,” said World Vision advocacy specialist Christina Bradic. “Churches are for charities, the government is for operating the United States,” she said, recalling a common refrain.

One way to combat that attitude is to create empathy. Last year, World Vision published “A refugee mom’s to-do list”, which narrated household tasks familiar to any mother in the developed world with their counterpart in a refugee camp — from sharing shower and toilet facilities, to cooking a one-pot meal that must last the whole day, to sending their child to makeshift schooling.

Such a campaign, Bradic said, shows that “the people we are working for and advocating for are like them also.” It’s also a way to avoid alienating that constituency by wading into the prickly territory of U.S. politics with voters who may support President Trump. “We’re not against the administration,” Bradic said of World Vision’s approach. “We’re against children not having enough to eat.”

Read more Devex coverage about the future of U.S. aid and development policy under the Trump administration.

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About the author

  • Greg

    Gregory Scruggs

    Gregory Scruggs is a journalist based in Seattle. He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Columbia University. A specialist in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil. His coverage of the Habitat III summit and global urbanization won a 2017 United Nations Correspondent Association award. He coordinates the Seattle chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.