Nikki Haley needs to square rhetoric with U.S. funding, experts say

Nikki Haley, United States ambassador to the United Nations. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission to Geneva / CC BY-ND

Development experts are expressing concern as to how Nikki Haley, United States ambassador to the United Nations, will square her seemingly open-minded rhetoric on the U.N. and humanitarian work with the likely future leadership direction — and retreating donor strategy — of the U.S.

The timing of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and Nikki Haley’s twin visits to Washington, D.C., this past week was not a coincidence, says Peter Yeo, the president of the Better World Campaign and vice president of public policy and advocacy at the United Nations Foundation, who called it a “blockbuster week for the U.S.-U.N. relationship,” saying, “that’s where the action is, as it relates to the budget, at this point.”

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As Guterres had a series of closed-door meetings, including with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Haley, during her two open Congressional hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, doubled down on President Donald Trump’s controversial and widely criticized decisions to expand the “global gag rule,” defund the U.N. Population Fund and withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Trump has also taken a hard line against the U.N. more broadly, and other international bodies.

However, she also walked a fine line of diplomacy, affirming her support for addressing multiple, worsening food insecurity crises, supporting women and girls’ health and, generally, the work of U.N. agencies.

“We have really put a strong voice at the U.N. They know we are back. They know we are strong,” she said of American leadership on Wednesday morning.

The focus now, some development experts say, is whether this dialogue will follow through — and how much funding the U.S. government will ultimately cut from the U.N. and humanitarian aid.

“You cannot in one breath talk about the critical importance of range of activities to enhance the well-being of women and families, and then in the next breath castigate the very programs that are responsible for promoting and ensuring those kinds of advances,” said Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International.

“Those words, that rhetoric, has got to translate into realities.There is just no way to square what Ambassador Haley said this morning with the draconian cuts for the very programs whose importance she was emphasizing,” he added.

The U.S. proposed cuts to the U.N. could total up to 50 percent, as was reported earlier this spring, which, if implemented, would make the U.N.’s essential work “impossible” to carry through, the organization has said.

During the hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, Haley said that the budget proposal was a “starting point.” She also explained the U.S. mission is in the process of reviewing each U.N. agency and considering “what is valuable and what is not.” That includes UN Women, one of the smaller U.N. agencies that Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating singled out, asking her why the proposed budget excluded funding for its important work.

“I think I need to do more work [on the agency]. But overall, I think, yes, anything that empowers women, works for girls, does any of those things, yes it sounds good on the surface, but we are going through all of those, whether it is like UNESCO, or it is all of these programs that we have we are going to continue to look at them,” Haley said.  

Haley also reaffirmed the Trump administration’s stance on the UNFPA, citing a false claim that its work in China is tied to forced sterilizations. The U.S. defunded future funding to UNFPA in April, citing the Kemp-Kasten amendment, which prevents the government from giving foreign aid to an organization that does coercive abortions or forced sterilizations. UNFPA, which provides reproductive and maternal health care worldwide, looked to the U.S. as its third largest donor.

The timeline for this U.N. agency review process is “short-term,” she said.  

There were also discussions — and voiced concerns — about cutting the U.S. contributions to the U.N. peacekeeping budget from 27 to 25 percent, a drop that could be “probably in the realm of manageable,” says Yeo, who noted that both Republicans and Democrats seemed to “coalesce” around this number.

Haley also said that U.S. funds to the U.N. mission of Haiti — set to close by the end of this year — were being sliced by $150 million. Concessions — to Republicans that is — like this contributed to what Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert, called a “good week” for Haley, politically speaking.

She walked a fine diplomatic line to satisfy both her domestic base and foreign counterparts,” Gowan wrote in an email to Devex. “Haley announced some big cuts to U.N. peacekeeping to excite Republicans at home, but in reality she was spinning a set of pretty reasonable cost reductions that the U.N. can manage.”

“A lot of the cuts concern operations like the mission in Haiti that have been shrinking anyway. Overall, Haley wangled a decent deal for all concerned,” he stated.

Haley’s foreign counterparts might hope this model could be replicated for humanitarian aid, Gowan says.

“Haley and the White House need to trumpet regular wins for U.S. taxpayers.  But in reality, Haley seems willing to compromise on financial cuts that allow the U.N. to keep muddling through decently.”

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