A former general counsel at USAID has warned the aid agency could face serious challenges under President-elect Donald Trump, including how it operates in conflict countries, the future of U.S. democratizing work, potentially scaling back support for LGBTI and family planning programs abroad, and even filling the post of USAID administrator.
John Simpkins, who stepped down as the agency’s top lawyer at the end of October, also called on countries where the U.S. Agency for International Development works to “make it clear” to the Trump administration that the partnership is delivering beneficial impacts if they want to continue receiving support.
The lawyer’s comments come amidst a fog of uncertainty about the future of USAID under the incoming administration.
“If there are concerns about the direction of foreign assistance going forward then one way to address those concerns would be to have countries in which USAID operates make it clear that specific engagements are having a positive impact,” Simpkins said.
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The lawyer, who served as general counsel at USAID for 18 months, told Devex that he feared Trump’s inauguration in January could herald a shift away from using development to “facilitate” the country’s diplomatic efforts.
“Currently our efforts on the development side pay great dividends in that we don’t have to fight, but I’m concerned that this will be turned on its head and we will lead on engagements abroad through a defense posture as opposed to our development activities,” he said.
Having Gayle Smith as USAID administrator has “aided” these development first efforts, Simpkins said, due to her “credibility” with the national security community and her ability to speak with “authority” to both the defense and diplomatic community without assuming USAID is subordinate to either.
Finding someone to replace her come Jan. 20, especially in an administration which appears to have “little discernible interest” in USAID, will be a “real challenge” and the post, as well as many other senior positions, could be filled by career staff for months or even a year, he said.
Simpkins, who was at the Office of Management and Budget before joining USAID, also said a Trump administration could have major implications for the U.S. aid agency’s presence in “closed spaces” — countries where the government is hostile to the U.S. presence — such as Syria, and Venezuela. In these countries, U.S. efforts are usually focused on promoting “democratization” efforts, about which it is “not clear” whether the Trump administration has any interest in engaging in, he said.
“Closed spaces are going to become even more problematic and come under close scrutiny and the question is how do we continue to operate in those countries, and if indeed we are going to,” he said.
Simpkins, who will take up a new post teaching a course on development and law at Duke University next year, said USAID lawyers may, under the new administration, be required to more rigorously enforce restrictions against certain family planning activities as well as potentially roll back protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
“Although clearly USAID doesn’t fund programs which carry out abortions, it’s conceivable you could take a harder look at activities which occur in a family planning role and seek to further restrict those activities,” he said.
In October, USAID issued policy guidance forbidding USAID implementers from discriminating against LGBTI beneficiaries. Simpkins said this could be changed by the new administration, which would have a “chilling effect in some of the areas where we work where LGBTI community are literally under attack,” he said.