The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Eric E Johnson / CC BY-NC-ND

Months ago, the ONE Campaign set Feb. 28 as the day for the ONE Power Summit, a day of advocacy in Washington, D.C. The group couldn’t have known at the time that just one day before its event, reports would surface that President Donald Trump was to propose a massive 37 percent reduction in foreign aid spending.

In some ways, the news became a rallying cry for the group of 200 advocates who had descended on the nation’s capital to meet with lawmakers — meetings that several lawmakers referenced as they spoke out against the proposed cuts this week.

“We’re feeling very good that we’ve created a sense of urgency around this and need to continue to rally support to block it,” said Tom Hart, the ONE Campaign’s North America executive director. The ONE Campaign will be looking to “point out as loudly and as often as we can” the disconnect between what the president is proposing as a security budget and making cuts to foreign aid or “soft power — counter to what our own defense leaders say,” he said.

Groups such as the ONE Campaign, development organizations and lobbyists who support foreign aid are gearing up for a fight, and while they are in agreement that the proposed cuts are alarming and dangerous, they are also quick to say that the budget, in its current form, is unlikely to succeed.

And that isn’t particularly surprising: A president’s budget is always a starting point, a set of recommendations for negotiations. The official budget has yet to even be released, and there is a slight chance that when the “skinny budget” — which gives agency-level budget recommendations but doesn’t get into specifics — is released around mid-March, the projections may change.

What’s unusual is that the reports of the budget slash are based on communications between the Office of Management and Budget and the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development, which are typically a private part of the budget process.

USAID 'working with' White House to review budget priorities

The U.S. Agency for International Development says it is working with the White House on reviewing budget priorities as President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal looks likely to include steep cuts to foreign aid.

And advocates are now questioning whether or how much the process can be influenced before the “skinny budget” is released. That may be hard to do at this point because it’s difficult to know who to work with and what the process is, so the strategy most are employing is to go to Congress and try to shore up support among the decisionmakers who have the final say on budget issues.

Early signals, based on the communications with the OMB, are that the proposed cuts wouldn’t be spread equally among the individual accounts within the foreign aid budget, a Republican lobbyist, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely, told Devex. The global health and humanitarian budgets are likely to be spared the deepest cuts, whereas other areas — including support to multilateral institutions, climate funds and family planning funds — could all see significant cuts, he said.

There might also be challenges to the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is a pool of funding operated by the State Department and the Department of Defense and is used as a vehicle for supplemental emergency funding in response to disasters. Mick Mulvaney, the newly installed chief of the OMB, reportedly is not a fan of the OCO fund, the lobbyist said.

Key arguments

Aid support has evolved over the years and those changing perceptions help inform the arguments that advocates will make as they try to protect foreign assistance.

The argument that many lobbyists make is multi-pronged: foreign aid is important for U.S. economic interests; it’s key for U.S. national security interests and it’s the right thing to do and is important as a reflection of U.S. values.

The national security argument was front and center this week, in part due to a letter signed by more than 120 retired military leaders cautioning that dramatic cuts to development and diplomacy funding would be harmful to America’s national security efforts and urging congressional and administration leaders to continue support. And while efforts to improve economic conditions and prevent disease and hunger help to stabilize countries and limit the number of people who are targets for extremists, making a cogent global security argument can still be complicated.

Linking development with national security has long been a great concern, particularly among humanitarian organizations. CARE, for example, does not support withholding aid based on national security objectives and its policy is not to take sides in conflicts. But the organization does talk about the importance of meeting basic needs — such as food, water and shelter — in promoting stability, said Liz Marcey, CARE’s senior policy advocate.

The national security argument is an important one, but it might not always be the best one to make, the Republican lobbyist told Devex. It’s often too abstract or can seem a bit hollow coming from development advocates, he said, adding that from the right military officials, it does have weight.

“A lot of advocates over the years have made a somewhat lazy connection between poverty and terrorism,” he said. “If you give the lazy argument, Republicans don’t buy into it.”

With national security, as with making the case for development aid in general, specificity is critical, he said. So, for example, Bill Gates’ remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February about the threat of bioweapons and global vulnerability — which address a specific, clear problem — are more likely to draw attention and elicit a response.

Those details shouldn’t be formulaic — for example, outlining how many lives that $1 million could save. Instead, laying out a specific situation in a particular country, explaining a real situation on the ground, and articulating that there are lives at risk can be quite effective, he said.

Another key argument that may resonate particularly well, and that advocates should be considering, is to not only focus on the foreign aid cuts, but on the nondefense discretionary spending more broadly. Foreign aid advocates should join with others from agriculture, health or transportation to coordinate a unified strategy that says that a budget cannot be balanced on the back of 12 percent of government spending, the lobbyist said.

The strategy ahead

Trump criticizes US foreign spending, but proposed cuts to aid draw fierce opposition

President Donald Trump denounced U.S. foreign spending in his address to Congress Tuesday night even as his proposed deep budget cuts to foreign aid began drawing fierce criticism from Democrats, senior figures in his own party and international development groups.

Different organizations will look to play different parts in the push to protect foreign aid dollars, and advocates will work closely in the weeks and months ahead as some accelerate and others figure out the specifics of their strategies.

Even as individual strategies unfold, one thing is clear: The organizations working to advocate on foreign assistance cooperate regularly and often work in coalition, which they will do here. That doesn’t mean the occasional meeting — most of them are on the phone on a near daily basis working to coordinate efforts and messaging.  

“It’s a very cohesive and collaborative community,” ONE’s Hart said. “That was true before the cuts and remains so now.”

Those conversations have picked up in the past month, Marcey said. Advocates have been talking about the strengths of different organizations and determining who is best suited for which task in order to best coordinate on a variety of issues, she added.

One of the decisions they have made — and a point where they will speak with a unified voice — is calling for no cuts to the foreign budget and asking legislators to maintain the same levels of funding as were approved for the 2017 fiscal year.

The reason organizations are asking for the equivalent level of funding is the expected humanitarian needs in the year ahead, with, among other challenges, one famine already declared in South Sudan and three countries on the brink.

“The need won’t stop or slow down for the U.S. budget process,” Marcey said.

While CARE works within that coalition, it is still working to determine its precise strategy. Budget issues have not generally been a core focus for CARE in its advocacy efforts; it has focused on women and girls, food security, maternal and child health and humanitarian situations. But the recent signals indicate a need to get more heavily involved in those issues, she said.

In the near term, the organization’s advocacy work will focus on making sure that aid champions have the information they need. A lot of what staffers have been asking for so far is about the impacts of the cuts. Unfortunately, until more details are available, the specifics about impacts will be hard to provide, Marcey said. So to that end, and in preparation of more details, CARE is doing what Marcey described as groundwork — running scenarios and ensuring that they know what programs are doing and have data on impacts.

CARE will also be ramping up its work to educate new members of Congress on foreign aid issues, which began long before this announcement, Marcey said.

The ONE campaign will continue engaging with legislators on Capitol Hill and working on grassroots mobilizing, particular in key congressional districts so that representatives “feel the wind at their backs,” Hart said.

The organization has reached out to supporters online and through social media, asking them to call their elected officials and sign an online letter opposing the cuts. In addition to the 230 meetings those advocates had in D.C. on Tuesday, more than 100 meetings are planned at state and district offices next week to talk about the budget, and in particular, its impact on women and girls. Those meetings will be part of an effort to generate support not only in D.C. but at the local level, he said.

But there are some real challenges.  

“The first and obvious one is it’s never easy to be running a campaign against a presidential priority and time will tell how hard the White House will push on this,” Hart said.

The other critical challenge is that there are still many misperceptions among the U.S. public about how much of the budget is spent on foreign aid. Polls show that most people believe it is more than 20 percent of the budget, when in reality it is about 1 percent. The other harmful misconception is that aid comes in the form of a blank check to foreign governments. Educating people about the way foreign aid works and communicating the issue to the public is a critical part of tackling the issue, he said.

And that’s where organizations such as Global Citizen, which works to mobilize millennials around social change and ending poverty, may choose to step in with what they’re often known for: celebrity-driven campaigns that look to bring attention to issues.

“Obviously with scarce resources, like many organizations, we will be assessing where we can create the greatest impact,” said Michael Sheldrick, the global director of policy and advocacy at Global Citizen. “We need to make sure we don’t create echo chamber.”

But getting stories out there, sharing impacts and shattering misconceptions can create change, he said.

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

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor 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.