US aid community works to turn election candidates into development advocates

U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. Photo by: USA Today Network via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Development issues rarely factor into U.S. political campaigns, but that does not mean aid advocates are sitting idly by as election season kicks into high gear.

“I would guess that a lot of the leaders of the development community have, in one form or another, signed up with campaigns … and that’s how you contribute.”

— A former Obama administration appointee at USAID

While the country waits to see if Tuesday’s contests in 14 states — collectively known as Super Tuesday, the largest single day of voting during the presidential primary season — lend any clarity to a crowded Democratic field, U.S. aid leaders will be looking for signals about how to engage potential nominees in an ongoing conversation about America’s role in the world. For members of the U.S. development community, the goal during an election year often has less to do with drawing public attention to their issues than with educating — and influencing — the candidates themselves.

There have been few opportunities so far on the campaign trail for presidential candidates to make their views known about development, global health, and humanitarian issues.

At a February debate in Las Vegas, two candidates sparred over the significance of forgetting the name of the president of Mexico. A January debate in Des Moines, Iowa, mandated that one-third of the time be dedicated to U.S. foreign policy, but even then, questions about the role of development engagement were scarce.

“Those platforms are not really covering what the next potential commander in chief views as America's role in the world,” said Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an influential advocacy organization for development and diplomacy.

For the development community, that is a more urgent question than in years past. President Donald Trump’s administration has shown little regard for foreign aid programs, proposing repeated budget cuts and overseeing attempts to downsize America’s international affairs bureaucracy.

“You could argue credibly this is a more critical election, since foreign aid has been under attack by this administration in many ways,” said Porter Delaney, a Republican lobbyist and founding partner of the Kyle House Group.

”It doesn’t change that the politics of foreign aid doesn’t matter politically in an election cycle,” he said.

Educating the candidates

Facing that reality, aid advocates have had to find other ways of ensuring that the issues they care about stay on the radar of the people who might eventually run the government. USGLC, for example, invited the candidates to house parties to discuss development and diplomacy with voters and caucusgoers in the key primary states of Iowa and South Carolina, where the retail politics of individual interaction hold sway. All of the top-tier Democratic candidates attended at least one of the events, Schrayer said.

“We have seen these candidates have ... a strong understanding, I think good instincts, a real interest in these issues,” Schrayer said.

She pointed to a Council on Foreign Relations questionnaire that asked the candidates what they considered America’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment since World War II to be. The most common answer was the Marshall Plan, Schrayer pointed out.

“Of all the things they could pick, they pick the largest foreign assistance investment in our world in history,” she said.

“We’re having [conversations about that], and they're delighted to take advantage. These top-tier candidates are seeking out our platform to do so,” Schrayer said.

Another advocacy organization, the ONE Campaign, is engaging with the presidential campaigns as it has in past election cycles. The organization has always believed that “whoever is in the West Wing has enormous influence,” said Tom Hart, ONE’s North American director.

The ONE Campaign is working to make sure that candidates know about issues related to foreign aid, that there are different types of aid, and that it can be done effectively, Hart said. The goal is to get to know the candidates’ policy teams and build relationships “so whoever wins, we have a foundation to begin building support for programs we know work and initiatives we would like to move in the future,” Hart said.

Bread for the World, a Christian organization working to end hunger, has increased its advocacy efforts in the past few election cycles “because so much is at stake as the country swings back and forth,” said David Beckmann, the organization’s president.

Since 2012, the organization has worked with church leaders to get videos from the candidates about hunger and poverty issues. This year, most of the major candidates still remaining — with the exception of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and President Trump — have participated.

Unlike many other development advocacy organizations, Bread for the World operates both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit organizations — with the latter able to engage in political activities. In the general election, it intends to comment on the presidential race and this election cycle’s 15 House and Senate races.

“We are very much a bipartisan organization, but on the other hand, we do push for policies that we think are in the interest of poor people,” Beckmann said.

“In many ways, President Trump is doing things that are absolutely contrary to what we think is needed for poor people in this country and around the world,” he added.

Behind the scenes

In the absence of a public debate over development issues, other development leaders take a more behind-the-scenes approach to engaging with elections. One way to ensure potential nominees begin to formulate their ideas and plans for U.S. development engagement is by participating directly in the campaigns.

“It’s not going to do any good to be loud and proud about foreign assistance with the campaigns, because they won’t hear you — except to become involved with the candidate of your choice,” said a former Obama administration appointee at USAID, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I would guess that a lot of the leaders of the development community have, in one form or another, signed up with campaigns … and that’s how you contribute. They’re issues that won’t see the light of day except for some issue papers on websites. They will not be talked about, but that’s how you push your interests: for eventual adoption should your candidate [win],” the former official said.

“The development community should not lose sight and not take their eye off Congress.”

— Liz Schrayer, president and CEO, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

From the campaign’s perspective, pulling in skilled policy thinkers on a wide range of issues, including development, is a good thing, too. If people are working to develop policy ideas for a potential nominee, that means they are engaged.

“All campaigns want the best and brightest of any particular discipline to be working on their campaign,” the former USAID official said. “It’s a way to take names, to develop a list of people who’ve been loyal to you, which is not a bad thing.”

Once the nominee is decided, there tends to be a consolidation of these policy thinkers into the general election candidate’s camp. In addition to building support for the candidate among policy thinkers, the process also helps pave the way for a smoother transition to inauguration day, should that person win the election.

“One of the tragedies of Hillary [Clinton] losing was we had hundreds and hundreds of papers setting up a whole policy regime in every aspect of government,” the former official said, referring to the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Another U.S. development advocate who requested anonymity described the Clinton campaign as the “high-water mark of building out really in-depth content and policy preparedness for development” and said it is unlikely that other campaigns will reach a similar level of depth on these issues for a long time.

An eye on Congress

While the presidential race commands much of the public’s attention, it is far from the only thing that matters when it comes to shaping global development’s political standing. One clear lesson from Trump’s first term is that the development community’s relationship with Congress is as important, if not more important, than its relationship with the White House.

“The development community should not lose sight and not take their eye off Congress,” Schrayer said.

In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, members of USGLC’s national network met with over 300 candidates running for Congress. They have already met with 260 candidates running for election this year and expect to reach 350 of them before November, Schrayer said.

“We're working really hard to continue to communicate our message about the importance of these issues to America's interest. When we look back on the last three years, there has been strong bipartisan support that has protected $42 billion of proposed cuts to these programs from Capitol Hill,” Schrayer said.

To maintain the bipartisan consensus on foreign aid, it may be “better to keep it out of the cross-party debate” in the general election, Delaney said. If a Democratic challenger speaks out about the importance of foreign aid, it could result in the president doubling down on his position on cutting foreign aid because the issue is a “winner” with his voter base, he said.

A few high-profile issues do hold the potential to push development closer to the fore of the political conversation. One of them is the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which is already at risk of igniting a partisan battle over the White House’s management of a global health emergency. Debates over immigration and how to engage with migrants’ countries of origin have drawn similar attention to foreign assistance policies.

For development advocates, those topical subjects create an opportunity to meet candidates “where their interests are,” Schrayer said.

They might also create some risk, though.

At the USGLC State Leaders Summit in June, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum pointed out that “politically salient issues” are often not the ones that create opportunities to get things done.

“The fact that you may have issues that are not politically important is the greatest opportunity you have,” Santorum said during a panel focusing on foreign policy and the 2020 election.

“You just need to be one of those unassuming little issues that nobody cares about, except that it makes a big difference in the world, and go and lobby on those,” he said.

About the authors

  • 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.
  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.