Trump budget thrusts US foreign aid into a political fight

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo by: Patrick Kelley / U.S. Coast Guard / CC BY-NC-ND

President Donald Trump’s budget request released Tuesday marked the end of an era when global development programs could generally fly under the radar, enjoying quiet bipartisan support and — with a few exceptions — steering clear of big political battles, according to development experts who shared their reactions to the proposal.

For more than a decade, U.S. engagement in global development efforts has stood as a rare exception to Washington’s constant partisan warfare, with both Democrats and Republicans tending to agree that relatively small investments in developing countries benefit U.S. national security and project American values. The Trump administration’s proposal to slash foreign aid spending by a third marks a distinct turn toward a more politically charged environment for these programs than has been seen in a long time, many in the development community agreed.

“It is a politicized foreign assistance budget,” said Scott Morris, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Morris added that the choice to treat cuts to humanitarian assistance and global health programs as an opportunity to make a political statement represents a “departure” from recent decades.

“This administration sees a political gain by demonstrating deep cuts,” Morris said.

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers responded harshly to what they saw as a proposal designed to advance a political agenda at the expense of humanitarian assistance. “It is unconscionable that President Trump would propose such drastic cuts to emergency food aid at this time,” Barbara Lee, a Democratic congresswoman from California, wrote to Devex by email.

The president’s budget request proposes to eliminate Title II food aid, relying instead on the International Disaster Assistance account it deems to be more efficient, and yet which it also proposes to cut.

“With more than 20 million people across four countries facing starvation and an additional 50 million in need of immediate food assistance, this budget request is a betrayal of families struggling to put food on the table. These proposed cuts are not only immoral, but also undermine our global health and national security agendas,” Lee added.

On Tuesday, the administration defended its proposal to slash foreign affairs spending as part of an effort to enhance efficiency, and focus on only the most effective programs. The officials suggested that current humanitarian needs can be met in part with funds already appropriated in the 2017 omnibus budget bill that passed last month.

“There are a lot of global challenges, and we actually want to thank the Congress for funding us to address a lot of those challenges in the 2017 bill so we will be able to meet a lot of the needs that we see coming out of the four famines … with the 2017 funds that we have,” said Hari Sastry, the director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at the Department of State.

Via Twitter

“In 2018 [the proposal] is trying to refocus our budget onto those highest priority needs, while asking the rest of the world to step forward,” Sastry added.

A number of prominent figures have disputed the White House’s claim that these proposed cuts align with a careful, deliberate review. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a top military advisor to former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, told Devex the administration’s cuts aren’t being pursued “thoughtfully,” and he doubted that a department unused to facing such deep reductions would be able to carry them out well — or push back against them.

“The State Department is not built to defend their budget,” Mullen said, adding that because the department has enjoyed sustained support for a long time it’s not in their “culture” to “fight for every dollar.”

Mullen also predicted staff would be destabilized by the proposal. “When you’re going to cut an organization by 30 percent it actually gets received inside it like you’re going to eliminate it,” he said.

The president’s budget request is widely regarded as an aspirational document, more useful as a statement of White House priorities than as a blueprint for what federal funding will look like in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, 2017. Congress, not the president, holds authority to appropriate funding. Still, as a statement of priorities, the Trump administration’s foreign affairs budget demonstrates “an absence of any real conviction about a development agenda,” said Morris.

“It’s a dangerous document. Even if Congress rejects the proposed cuts. The signal the administration’s sending about how it values — or in this case doesn’t value — global development — is really alarming.”

— Tom Hart, North America executive director of ONE Campaign

Tom Hart, North America executive director at the ONE Campaign, agreed. “It’s a dangerous document. Even if Congress rejects the proposed cuts. The signal the administration’s sending about how it values — or in this case doesn’t value — global development — is really alarming,” he said.

Despite strong opposition to some of the proposed cuts by members of Congress, military leaders and business leaders, administration officials seem to have made few changes to the foreign aid budget from the “skinny” budget and earlier leaks.

“This [budget] to me feels much more like a PR campaign than a policy initiative,” said Loyce Pace, the president and executive director of the Global Health Council. “That’s very intentional ... they know it won’t save money; they know it will appease many of their supporters.”

In place of a belief that long-term global development investments serve America’s best interests, the president’s budget request appears to interpret “America First” as a preference for shorter term, transactional funding streams that win favor with geopolitically strategic allies. The budget funds security assistance to Israel and Egypt, for example, and it excludes those two countries from a broader shift away from assistance grants to loans.

“What’s ironic in this budget is that the thing that really galls people is when we write blank checks to countries that are not accountable and sometimes don’t have our best interests at heart,” Hart said.

“It is the very thing that this budget would cut back that the public likes most about our engagement abroad,” Hart said.

The budget suggests, “we’re going to focus on countries that are advantageous to us for reasons that are outside what we typically see as development priorities — so looking at them for military leverage or economic opportunities,” Pace said. She added that while that interpretation is based on some assumptions about what the administration plans to do, it still raises concerns that the poorest of the poor could be abandoned under a new set of priorities if those communities are not seen as strategically important.

While Congress is likely to put forward a significantly different budget proposal, the global health and development communities should be thinking about these cuts and the ideology they represent, Pace said. They may also want to think about reframing some issues, or countries to help policy and decision makers see some of the ties from funding to U.S. strategic interests.

“We can continue to talk about lives saved but that’s not necessarily enough,” she said. “We need to be talking about dollars earned and crises averted and really message all of this in terms of morality, economy and security.”

Others took issue with the Trump administration’s claim that development programs must be sacrificed in order to prioritize national security.

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“The draconian and unprecedented nature of the cuts that are being proposed to foreign assistance … really does threaten our ability to pursue and achieve our national security interests,” said Michèle Flournoy, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and a former undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration.

She described development assistance as a “tool to prevent conflict” from occurring in the first place, to help “stabilize” countries which are emerging from conflict, and to create “new allies” and trading partners such as India and South Korea — “our development assistance is part of winning strategic allies for the long term,” Flournoy said.

Trump’s plan to cut foreign aid spending has been anticipated for months. The president rarely broached the topic on the campaign trail, but a series of outline documents — some of them released intentionally, others leaked to the press and think tanks — gave a clear indication that the White House had its sights set on cutting foreign aid. The administration’s stance has left the development community facing something of a paradox.

“On the one hand, I have never heard as much bipartisan support for foreign aid in my entire career as I have heard in response to this budget,” said Hart.

What Trump's budget request says about US aid

Trump's "America First" budget proposes a historic reduction of U.S. engagement in global development efforts.

On the other hand, development programs now find themselves caught up in a back and forth between Congress and the White House that will require lawmakers who support development programs to defend them in a way they haven’t had to before, at a time when, “the president’s budget puts downward pressure on the whole system,” Hart said.

Budget negotiations now move to Capitol Hill, where administration officials will defend their budget request to congressional lawmakers. Despite the broad and bipartisan pushback this budget has generated, the development community would be wise not to disregard it, said Morris.

“To say that a new president’s budget is just a wish list is assigning too much irrelevance to it. It is the starting process to the budget process,” Morris said.

“The point is — we are mistaken if we are overly dismissive about this,” he added.

Adva Saldinger and Sophie Edwards contributed to this report.

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

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.