Tips for navigating the 'new Washington'

A view of the U.S. Capitol building. Photo by: Bread for the World / CC BY-ND

Development professionals are grappling with how to adjust their work and advocacy efforts as aid priorities evolve and shift under the Trump administration. Faced with proposed funding cuts, the aid community sees this as a key moment to push for maintaining development’s role in foreign policy.

Several top aid executives and former officials discussed how to navigate this “new Washington” at last week’s InterAction Forum in Washington, D.C. Their comments were replete with warnings of the challenges ahead, even as they urged the audience to stay engaged.

This is a “dangerous moment” of “really interesting governance out of the executive branch,” said Gayle Smith, the president and CEO of the ONE Campaign who, until January, led the U.S. Agency for International Development under President Obama. She said there is a “vacuum that needs to be filled” on aid policy, and she hopes Congress will step in.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the U.S. is facing an “existential threat” to development and diplomacy. He argued for the aid community to build more alliances and make the case for its work more aggressively.  

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The sector should operate as if this administration's policies will be around for the long term — that this is the “new normal” in Washington, said Dan Runde, the director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Here are some key pieces of advice for development professionals looking to advance their work in a challenging political context:

1. Hone the arguments and tell a story

When making the case for foreign aid, panelists urged the audience to move beyond moral arguments. Development professionals will need to make “more crass” and direct arguments that link American security and jobs to development, said Runde. The sector needs to relearn their language for the new environment, he said.

Storytelling can also help convey the power and importance of aid — as well as recent efforts to reform it. At the moment, however, the development community struggles to tell its story, Smith said.

Panelists encouraged the sector to speak using language that people can understand, avoiding industry acronyms in favor of narratives about how U.S. funding is helping the country and the world. Through PEPFAR, for example, the U.S. has enabled the world to outpace the HIV/AIDS epidemic. If those resources are cut, that may no longer be the case, Smith said.

“Americans like the fact that we’re a world leader. They are proud of it,” she said.

Better communication should include questions of policy, such as the case for keeping USAID separate from the State Department. Smith said development professionals should talk less about “reform,” a concept that seems outdated, and more about how aid has already modernized and become iterative, she said.

2. Engage with members of the Trump administration

Despite potential ideological differences, panelists urged development professionals not to turn their backs on the administration.

There will be members of the administration who development professionals can work with, among them proposed USAID Administrator Mark Green — who is expected to be an advocate — as well as State Department officials, especially at the regional level, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

“We have to keep trying to work with those who are able to make the case inside,” Ornstein said.

Runde warned against aid groups being seen as participating in or operating as part of the resistance. Instead, he said, “take [the administration’s] views at face value and find areas of agreement.”

For example, the White House has emphasized their desire to reform government to be more efficient and effective. Runde urged the sector to think about programs or processes that could be changed and improved, since everyone can agree that current U.S. development system is imperfect, he said.

CSIS has tapped into that dynamic, convening a Congressional Task Force on Reform and Reorganization of U.S. Development Assistance co-chaired by Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire.

“You can’t fight something with nothing; it is also unrealistic to say every dollar is well spent,” Runde said.

3. Manage expectations and plan for cuts

While most development organizations have been advocating for aid budgets to stay at current levels, they would be wise to keep their expectations in check, some of the development experts said. It’s highly likely that the 2018 fiscal year budget will include some reductions.

Cuts at about 10 percent wouldn’t break development, Runde said. He suggested that USAID’s presence in India, for example, could be reduced and eventually eliminated, helping create a model for how U.S. development handles countries that are transitioning to be middle income countries.

U.S. policy could also focus on supporting domestic resource mobilization and help countries, including those getting PEPFAR funds, shift to supporting programs with their own funds.

4. Maintain a collective voice on the role of foreign aid

The development community needs to stick together to advocate for a robust foreign aid budget and a strong role for development alongside defense and diplomacy. Speaking with one voice on these issues should include recruiting for profit contractors into the debate, Runde said.

Aid has strong allies on Capitol Hill, where a bipartisan consensus of support is “alive and well but has to nurtured,” Smith said. But it would be a mistake to take that support for granted, she warned.

Given the current political environment, foreign aid could return to being a political football if the proper work isn’t done to maintain congressional support. “If that happens, 100 percent we will lose,” she said.

As they advocate in Congress, the sector needs to be organized, and politicians need to get credit for voting for foreign aid, Smith said. Strategically, she urged advocacy efforts to focus on limiting topline reductions for foreign aid spending accounts, rather than fighting for specific line items.

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