Opinion: Seeing past the shock of the Trump victory

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Photo by: Jeso Carneiro / CC BY-NC

The global development community is grappling — like much of the world — with a seismic political shock.  

As a mission-driven industry in which the United States federal government plays an outsized role, development professionals and aid workers the world over have good reason to wonder what a Donald J. Trump presidency will mean for their work and careers. The short answer is, no one — perhaps not even President-elect Trump — knows for sure.

But there are a range of questions worth mulling over and I have spent many of the hours since news of his victory contemplating these issues with leaders and insiders in our community. One thing is clear: There will likely be significant challenges for the global development agenda as a result of this election.

That said, there are good reasons to think that cataclysmic change (some in the community musing on social media that U.S. Agency for International Development might be abolished for example) is highly unlikely and would only unfold slowly over time if at all. Foreign aid won't fall off a cliff on Jan. 20, 2017. And, there may even be specific issues and initiatives that receive increased support.

Global development initiatives

The soon-to-be Trump administration remains somewhat mysterious, particularly on global development issues. The president-elect could offer some new, more comprehensive vision on global development beyond infrequent expressions of skepticism of foreign aid in campaign speeches. But more likely is that existing conservative policy prescriptions and worldview — unlocking more private sector investment, emphasizing economic freedom and fighting corruption, incentive-based approaches such as the Millennium Challenge Corp., and disease-specific global health programs — will become the organizing model for an area that is unlikely to take high priority in the White House.

What does seem to be higher priority is tax reform, including tax cuts and tax incentives for infrastructure, and to pay for them the next Congress and administration will need to find offsetting spending reductions. The international affairs budget (known as the “150 account” in Washington, D.C. parlance) is unlikely to survive this unscathed. Significant cuts seem likely, but perhaps not to those initiatives supported by conservatives.

The Heritage Foundation is perhaps the most influential conservative voice on these matters, and the result may be that initiatives of the George W. Bush administration — from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to the MCC, to the President’s Malaria Initiative — survive more or less intact. (Vice President-elect Mike Pence was a key part of the evangelical movement that supported America's investment in AIDS treatment, giving an impactful speech in 2008 on the floor of Congress during PEPFAR's reauthorization.)

So too might initiatives that appeal to conservatives, from land rights to anti-corruption efforts to countering violent extremism. Other areas of foreign assistance, from renewable energy and climate finance to the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and the Export-Import Bank, are just as likely to be cut. These latter agencies, whose funding needs to be reauthorized every year, may well not survive the first years of a Trump presidency. The closing of OPIC in particular could be the most dramatic symbolic change in the offing for our community, and, in the event, would mean millions of people remain without the electricity and health care made possible by the development finance institution’s important work. Of course, there remains an outside chance that Trump’s own vision will clash with that of the Heritage Foundation, as it appears to on trade issues, and his administration could find OPIC’s private sector approach and value for money appealing.

It's hard to imagine a Trump administration embracing multilateralism in the global development arena given the rhetoric of the campaign, Pence’s stated concerns with the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, and the views of the conservative establishment. With Jim Kim's re-election over, the next opportunity for this new worldview to manifest itself is the World Bank's general capital increase and International Development Association replenishment over the next year and a half. Then there is the May 2017 election for the next World Health Organization leader, an institution heavily dependent on U.S. financial support. Those multilateral institutions that don't have an immediate issue before the U.S. government may suffer more from neglect than pressure.

The climate agenda is one area that stands to take it on the chin from this election result. It is one of the few issue areas for which there is clarity in the form of promises made by Trump on the campaign trail. Global health may well benefit, as the coalition behind it is stronger and includes more conservative voices. Given the trade positions of candidate Trump, it's hard to imagine proponents of food aid reform being successful: In all likelihood America will continue to fly and ship U.S. agricultural products rather than providing funds directly to those who need it (even though the aforementioned Heritage Foundation supports reform).

Should military budgets remain intact, as seems likely based on Trump's statements, there is an open question of to what degree we may see a further militarization of U.S. foreign aid. The U.S. military already plays a significant role in delivering aid, and perhaps budget cuts to the civilian agencies will further that trend.

Presidential appointments

Of course should global development turn out to be, as expected, a low-priority issue for the White House, presidential appointees will play a bigger role. The likely candidates to be the next Secretary of State are reportedly Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Neither would win a popularity contest among NGOs and aid agencies, but Corker is more likely to tow the Heritage Foundation line, while Gingrich could well bring fresh ideas and initiatives to the table that are not currently part of the conversation. (A Corker staffer has a leading role in Trump's personnel office, suggesting he may be in a stronger position than others for a high-level appointment of this kind.)

The Trump team is as yet so unformed and opaque that there is no shortlist — not even a single name — being widely circulated for USAID administrator. And there are in total some 4,000 political appointees to be named by the new administration, but few loyalists to draw from. Perhaps some who served in aid agencies during the George W. Bush administration will be brought back, although most of the senior-level Republican foreign policy establishment strongly disavowed Trump during the campaign, so positions may need to be filled with less experienced former Bush administration and current Hill staffers. Many are speculating that the Trump administration could include more leaders from the private sector than has been the norm. And of course perhaps Trump's friends and family could end up in key roles important to our community, including ambassadorships (something similar happened during the Clinton administration).

Champions of global development

For those profoundly worried for the United States and the world in the wake of this election, my conversations with development leaders do not offer a facile balm. A pall has been cast over our diverse, inclusive, global community: Trump's divisive campaign seems like the perfect opposite to the ethos of an industry working for a better world for all people. But a majority of Americans did vote for Hillary Clinton, even though she clearly lost in the electoral college system, which gives more voice to less populated states. And champions of global development remain in key roles, not least South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime supporter of foreign assistance who pointedly voted for a third party candidate rather than Trump. Graham may be persona non grata in a Trump White House, but the slim GOP Senate majority (currently at 51 votes, with the likely addition of another after a December runoff in the Louisiana U.S. Senate race) means Graham will retain important influence.

If the U.K. is any guide (and Brexit seems the most analogous political tsunami to this one), there will be more status quo than change. The new U.K. government has defended the 0.7 percent of gross national income aid target and programmatic changes at this point appear more rhetorical than revolutionary. We may well find that the U.S. foreign assistance infrastructure — the product of decades of bipartisan efforts — remains largely intact when the president-elect’s term ends.

Perhaps the key question then is not what a new U.S. administration will do when it comes to global development. Perhaps the key question is what our community will do to stand up for the priorities and values we believe in. This may well require the courage to show up and be counted, but that's not in short supply among aid workers and global development professionals for whom facing down the world’s most menacing challenges is just a normal day at work.

Yes, you are some of the toughest lot there is. Don't forget it.

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

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.