Special feature: American public opinion on aid in the Trump era

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

WASHINGTON — In this series on the history of development, we are examining more than 60 years of polling on opinions toward aid to better understand effective messaging, common misperceptions the public has about development, and some myths the development community has about public opinion. In part one, we explored the often surprising history of how the American public has viewed aid programs. In part two, we examined how messaging shapes the way the public reacts to assistance.

So now comes the question on most readers’ minds: what does this wealth of polling data tell us about the public’s opinion of foreign assistance during the Trump presidency? And perhaps more importantly, what can and should the development community do about it?

Part 1: A history of American public opinion on foreign aid

In part one of this series, Devex contributor John Norris examines 60 years of polling data and the often surprising history of how the American public has viewed aid programs.

Part 2: Ghana, grandma and the factors affecting American public opinion on foreign aid

In part two, Norris analyzes why Americans might think the aid budget is bigger than it is and offers insights that can make messaging around aid much more effective.

Foreign aid and America First

Despite a core platform of smaller government, it is not fair to say Republicans are historically against foreign aid. Republicans usually bash aid when they are out of the White House and embrace it when they are in. In fact, some of the largest jumps in aid spending came under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The relatively positive legacies of programs started under Bush, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the President’s Malaria Initiative, continue to resonate with congressional Republicans, particularly conservative internationalists such Senators Bob Corker, John McCain and Lindsey Graham. These are strong messengers with the potential to sway public opinion.

But Donald Trump is an anomaly like the U.S. foreign aid program has never seen before. He is the first sitting Republican president ever to propose such major cuts in international development, and more importantly he does not seem to believe there is inherent value in investments designed to increase the number of free-market democracies around the globe — a longstanding and bipartisan pillar of American values and strategy abroad. Trump’s worldview, packaged under the “America First” doctrine, is perhaps best seen as driven by a “zero-sum” calculus. In sharp contrast, international development as an endeavor is built around an understanding that effective human development is “win-win.”

In his first major foreign policy speech outlining a new strategy on Afghanistan, Trump denounced nation-building, but recommended “the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic and military — toward a successful outcome.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also expressed striking indifference to the form of government that the Afghan people embrace. Then just days later, the administration announced it was withholding $100 million of aid to Egypt, and delaying another $195 million in funds due to lack of progress on human rights concerns. All of which paints a very confusing portrait as to how the administration will approach soft power around the globe.

It feels like public opinion toward aid could go several ways under Trump. First, if congressional Republicans remain on Trump’s side, it could simply become polarized along party lines with Republicans supporting deep cuts, Democrats opposing them, and independents genuinely queasy by the scale and speed of the cuts. There are a good number of issues that seem to be falling in this pattern, but thus far leading Republicans on foreign policy in Congress and elsewhere have been opposed to gutting assistance programs. Current and former military leaders have also stepped out in clear defense of diplomacy and aid, often being more vocal on the topic than the secretary of state.

Interactive: Here's where US Congress stands on foreign aid

Devex digs into past voting records and statements in the United States for clues as to where the leadership stands when it comes to cutting foreign aid. Read the analysis and explore our interactive feature.

Also read: Mapping Republican views on aid as budget discussions kick off in Congress 

Trump budget thrusts US foreign aid into a political fight

Former USAID Deputy Administrator Jim Kunder discounts the idea that debate over aid will simply become a partisan political issue. “No, not as long as military personnel understand its utility, and they do. And not as long as religious and humanitarian-oriented communities in the United States, which span the partisan spectrum, see value in foreign assistance, and they do.”

What may be more likely is that the issue of aid becomes divided less along party lines, and more along pro-Trump versus anti-Trump lines, with his core 30-40 percent of supporters embracing sweeping cuts and potential reorganization no matter what the cost.

Given that views toward aid often mimic confidence in government numbers, this may also produce some unusual contortions. Those Trump voters, whose confidence in government was at a nadir in the Obama years, might suddenly feel better about aid because it is their guy distributing it and they feel reassured it is not “going to people who hate us.” In other words, foreign aid may be seen as tolerable among those people who have objected to it the most — if it is Trump’s foreign aid. We have seen vivid examples of this phenomenon in other areas. Immediately after the election, Republican voters’ confidence in the economy soared and that of Democrats plunged, even though it was exactly the same economy as in the weeks before.

There is also real risk for foreign aid being, involuntarily, tied to the confidence in government numbers. Trump has begun his presidency with historically low approval numbers, and his administration has already been plagued by a series of major missteps and bubbling scandals. If the bottom drops out of Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans, faith in government numbers could hit new lows, with the perception of aid wrapped around the chain of a sinking ship.

Equally true, USAID in particular — with a reorganization looming and a president who has openly expressed views hostile to its core operating principles — is particularly vulnerable. It is not well positioned to navigate any self-inflicted wounds or scandals at the current time, and a rash of bad press could have an unfortunate snowball effect at the current moment.

The other possibility is that Trump’s presidency will usher in a high-profile, high-stakes battle about the merits, efficacy and lasting value of America’s international development programs. For development advocates to prevail or even hold their ground in this battle, they will need to generate bipartisan support, make their case in compelling and relatable terms, and appeal to the better interests and values of voters and representatives alike. As InterAction President Lindsay Coates commented, “I think that the great cohort of the American public that cares about what takes place beyond our borders is being mobilized, and that includes faith-based groups, implementers, NGOs, for-profits, some big civil society constituencies, and even the U.S. military. There is a great deal of energy right now.”

A supporter of Donald Trump holds up a sign. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

Other advocacy experts agreed. “The public will rally if they believe the human costs and the moral stakes are high,” argued Paul O'Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America. “Youth activists understand personal agency and global interconnectivity way better than most of us, and old-fashioned broadcast campaigns that package the poor with no agency or power will not land well,” he said. But unlike the 1990s, when USAID and the aid program were heavily targeted by Senator Jesse Helms, the administration’s siege on development spending comes at a time when it is undertaking similar campaigns against the health care system, environmental protection, family planning, food safety regulations, and any number of other causes that broad portions of the American public may see as a more direct threat to their interests than the aid program.

The message and messenger

Effectively mobilizing public support will require extremely smart and targeted approaches from the development community. To better understand the emerging opinion dynamics toward aid under Trump, we gathered some initial impressions from over 400 development leaders, teasing out some of the issues discussed earlier in this series. We asked them what they believe the international development community is getting wrong with messaging and how they would adjust it to better improve public opinion during the Trump years.  

Notably, according to our survey, there was almost universal recognition that the status quo is not working with aid messaging. Only 2 percent of respondents among these development leaders felt that the development community is getting the messaging right on foreign aid, a remarkable collective realization that approaches to date have not yielded the hoped-for results. This is highly encouraging.

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There was less consensus among respondents regarding what they thought was driving those shortcomings, although close to one-third of respondents felt that aid messaging should rely more on national security arguments. One-quarter of those surveyed felt economic arguments should be used more heavily. Others argued for more sectoral-specific aid messaging, and others felt that negative, emotional imagery still played too large a part in the development community. While part two of this series noted that security messaging has often been the community’s most effective message, it is worth pondering if such an approach will be effective while the government’s aid program is overseen by a president who is quite dismissive of almost all but military force in advancing security aims.

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The emphasis on messaging around the contributions of aid programs to the long-term health of the U.S. economy, exports and American workers seems particularly promising: for example, the fact that seven of the top 10 export markets for the United States are former aid recipients. That said, very few NGOs, contractors or aid organizations feature much in the way of economic or pocketbook messaging around the importance of aid, and that remains a significant blind-spot. Economic messages will likely be most effective if they are tailored to specific markets in a way that doesn’t feel generic. Talking about the importance of foreign aid to the economy may be too broad; talking about the number of manufacturing jobs in Ohio that rely on exports and how Africa is the world’s next great developing market might prove more effective.

Certainly, using more localized language and examples that people outside of the beltway can grasp is important. Talking about how many aid grants and contracts benefit America may not move the needle, for instance, but discussing the importance of Tulane’s international development work to a congressman or editorial board writer from Louisiana will likely be a lot more effective.

That emphasis on specificity and success is something that stands out again and again in the best practices for aid messaging. Connie Veillette, a senior fellow at the Lugar Center, revealed, “Aid advocates need to talk about its purpose. ‘Should the United States be a leader in ending hunger?’ gets a more positive response than ‘Should we help foreign farmers?’ Equally, ‘should the United States help the former Soviet Union dismantle its nuclear arsenal?’ used to get an overwhelmingly positive response. Americans are generous, but they also want to know aid is going for the right purposes.”

We won’t succeed in a globalized economy by focusing on walls.

— Paul O'Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America

None of these factors shaping negative views toward aid are going to magically disappear overnight. This suggests that at a time when the development community is fighting tooth and nail for its survival, it should also be very much thinking about the long game. If the development community wants the public to have a positive view of international development, it needs to reach people more effectively and at a much younger age than has traditionally been the case. A generation ago, most kids in America thought their primary contribution to environmentalism was to not litter. Now you can enter any third-grade classroom in America and they know “reduce, reuse, recycle.” That shift has not come through magic or some grand awakening. It has come through persistent, thoughtful environmental education and advocacy aimed at young people based on common sense and self-interest.

If the development community ever wants to get to the point where it enjoys some of the broad supports that its peers in western Europe do, it will need to make these kinds of investment in explaining to young people why helping their peers in the developing world become healthier, more productive, better educated, and more civically engaged is in their best interest. As Paul O'Brien of Oxfam maintains, “We won’t succeed in a globalized economy by focusing on walls.”

Whether messaging for young people utilizes things like the Sustainable Development Goals or not is an open question, but given the success of the Millennium Development Goals in focusing global attention on a few big-ticket development agendas, there may be some promise there. The simple fact that younger Americans — no matter where they live or what they choose to do with their careers — are growing up in a more globally interconnected world should spark more intimate interest in how their government engages with other countries abroad.

But for now, America’s development community stands at an enormous crossroads. With 60 years of hard fought experience, it knows better now than ever before what messaging is effective and what is not. The community has an impressive track record of accomplishment, but also faces a president that would appear to give little thought to destroying the endeavor of development completely. For a group of professionals who operate in difficult environments and tackle intractable problems, getting more Americans to understand their work and contributions seems entirely possible no matter who occupies the West Wing.

This is part three of the series on American public opinion on foreign aid. Read part 1: A history of American public opinion on foreign aid, which includes information on the methodology, and read part 2: Ghana, grandma and the factors affecting American public opinion on foreign aid. Visit USAID: A history of US foreign aid for more coverage.

About the authors

  • John norris

    John Norris

    John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the executive director of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress and was chief of political affairs for the U.N. Mission in Nepal back when the country was emerging from a decadelong war. Earlier in his career, John worked at the State Department and USAID.
  • Troilo pete%2520head

    Pete Troilo

    As director of global advisory and analysis, Pete manages all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp.