If Trump ties aid to national security, will NGOs stand on principle?

U.S. Marines and Nepalese soldiers unload boxes of emergency supplies of a UH-1Y Huey helicopter at Orang, Nepal. Photo by: US Embassy Kathmandu / CC BY-ND

The U.S. development community has always walked a tricky line.

On one hand, development organizations want it known that they contribute to U.S. national security by supporting stability in unstable parts of the world — and that Congress should fund them to do so. On the other hand, organizations working to fight poverty and save lives don’t want to be seen as just a “soft power” tool at the Pentagon’s disposal.

Some fear the next administration will make that balancing act even more difficult.

As President-elect Donald Trump assembles his cabinet, his views on foreign aid remain largely a mystery. Some NGO leaders worry a Trump administration will draw closer ties between U.S. foreign assistance and U.S. national security — and that this might entail co-opting them into a U.S.-led military fight against violent extremism. With just over a month remaining until Trump’s inauguration, the NGO community is preparing now to engage with the incoming administration and to clarify what exactly it will and will not do on behalf of the U.S. government.

“Every organization right now … needs to decide whether they’re going to be willing to accept money that is overtly designed to counter terror and counter violent extremism. Yes, or no? Decide that now,” said Joel Charny, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, in a Facebook Live event last month.

These questions could arise in specific contract language laying out what an organization that receives funding from the U.S. government is required to do, and in decisions about where — and where not — to direct U.S. foreign assistance, Charny told Devex.

On the first point, U.S. NGOs have already bristled at a U.S. government Partner Vetting System, rolled out in 2015 on a pilot basis in five countries to collect more information about people involved with U.S.-funded projects.

“It’s an example where the government’s attempt to gather intelligence through NGO activity risks the activity itself,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.

Some worry a national security-focused Trump administration could expand or tighten these regulations, or create new ones.

“I think the greatest dilemmas are going to be around what we’re required to do, contractually, in terms of clauses that may … sign us up to the war on terror,” Charny said.

Trump has never addressed these very specific policy issues directly, but his campaign remarks give a taste of where he lands on similar questions.

When asked a year ago whether he would support reauthorizing legislation to make it easier for the government to collect information about U.S. citizens, Trump said, “When you have people that are beheading if you’re a Christian … when you have the world looking at us and would like to destroy us as quickly as possible, I tend to err on the side of security, and some people like that, frankly, and some people don’t like that.”

Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for an interview.

Access and regulations

In addition to concerns about reporting on their in-country partners, NGO leaders worry about efforts to further restrict or control humanitarian access or funding on the basis of national security priorities.

If a drought intensifies in Somalia, raising the possibility of a famine, the Trump administration might, for example, restrict humanitarian relief on the grounds that parts of Somalia are controlled by the violent extremist group al-Shabab.

The Obama administration’s own policies in East Africa are complicated by military objectives, flying drone strike operations against targets in a country that is desperately food insecure. In 2010 and 2011, the administration was slow to support drought and famine response in Somalia out of concern that resources might be diverted to extremist groups, Charny said, adding that this administration has since shifted its outlook in favor of humanitarian access where it is needed.

“With a shift in administration and an emphasis on protecting the homeland, are we going to be able to make an argument that says, ‘if we can negotiate access we should be able to respond to drought or famine in Somalia wherever we find it, including in areas controlled by al-Shabab,’ or is something like that going to be off-limits?” Charny said.

The development community has already seen national security-motivated financial “derisking” restrictions, intended to prevent money from flowing to terrorist organizations, impede harmless business transactions.

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Alicia Phillips Mandaville, vice president for global development at InterAction, described one example of this kind of risk aversion gone wrong.

A group of women’s choirs in the U.K. wanted to wire money to Nicaragua to buy a new piano for a women’s choir there. The money ended up caught in regulatory filters, because the person on the receiving end couldn’t find the correct registration.

“It’s a piano. That’s probably not where we’re going to do our best work in preventing money from getting in the hands of bad guys, but if we regulate incorrectly, that’s what we stop — the pianos,” Mandaville said.

U.S. development strategists and activists all emphasize how hypothetical this conversation still is. The Trump team’s U.S. Agency for International Development transition process has hardly begun. Development and humanitarian leaders continue to describe the transition to a new administration as an opportunity to put priority issues on the table, and to reinitiate conversations that might have lost momentum over the last eight years under President Barack Obama.

The relationship between foreign aid and national security is a long-running topic of conversation in the U.S. The relative importance of the “three Ds” — development, defense and diplomacy — and how they interact is easier to describe on paper than in practice.

Obama’s policy directive elevating development alongside defense and diplomacy was an important symbolic step, but not one that resolved every source of tension. Aid advocates have long sought — with limited success — a more prominent seat at the national security table, so they might emphasize development’s role in fostering stability.

People don’t want to be used

Different U.S. government partner organizations approach these dilemmas differently. Some of them take a harder line on rejecting funding that is tied to military objectives. Others have been more pragmatic. As a recent report by IRIN showed, some groups are limited by their overall exposure to U.S. government funding. Faced with a limited donor base, it can be hard to say no.

Still, many see an opportunity to educate the incoming administration. They’ll point to the Obama administration’s mixed record on these issues — such as the burdensome financial regulations — as a place where Trump could even do better than his predecessor, if his team were to be convinced.

Obama has overseen a stronger emphasis on using development investments to “counter violent extremism,” which some groups see as putting development at the service of an ulterior motive. CVE positions development investments as a sort of immunization against terrorism, and skeptics question whether programs designed for that specific purpose can take into account the full range factors that contribute to development.

“Our starting point is going to be observations about what the current administration is doing that is problematic,” O’Keefe said.

“I don’t think we have to assume a worst-case scenario to work for a better scenario. It’s moved the wrong way in our perspective and we’d like to push back,” he added.

Part of the challenge will also be to champion development effectiveness and convince the new administration that effective development programs require a commitment to achieving development results, not security objectives. One reason for that is that effective development programs require local ownership, and local people don’t like to feel used by foreign governments for other policy objectives.

“You can’t get that local ownership if you’re objective is self-serving national security,” O’Keefe said.

“People are too smart for that. Local governments are too smart for that. They don’t want to be used for other ends. They don’t want to be instrumentalized,” he added.

On controversial issues such as partner vetting and financial derisking, the NGO community will have an opportunity to catch new officials at a time when they are still considering what exactly it is they are going to prioritize and what their opinions are of highly specific policy options they may not have considered before.

“How do we catch them in the window where their desire to do good can be met with the information they need to do good?” Mandaville said. “That’s the hard thing for us. How do we know when the clock starts?”

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

  • 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.