US budget scramble, 'Doing Business' data, and Birx's retirement: This week in development

Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 response. Photo by: International AIDS Society / Steve Forrest / U.S. State Department

Trump creates late drama for budget negotiations, the World Bank’s “Doing Business” team was pressured to manipulate data, and Deborah Birx announces plans to retire. This week in development:

U.S. lawmakers agreed to a budget deal and coronavirus relief package that includes an additional $4 billion for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, but which falls far short of the $20 billion in global COVID-19 response funding advocates have pushed for. After months of negotiation, the massive spending package, which combines an annual $1.4 trillion budget bill with $900 billion in coronavirus relief, appeared on track to become law. On Tuesday night, however, President Donald Trump released a video on Twitter calling the deal a “disgrace,” threatening to veto it, and appearing to misrepresent the annual appropriations bill — which includes funding for foreign assistance and a wide variety of other U.S. government priorities — as part of the COVID-19 relief package. By doing so, he suggested that lawmakers prioritized assistance to other countries over relief for Americans, creating an online backlash against aid spending among his supporters. In addition to the funding for Gavi, which would likely support global COVID-19 vaccination efforts, the relief package would authorize the Millennium Challenge Corp. to extend the duration of its country compacts for an additional year “to account for delays related to coronavirus.” The budget bill includes a $270 million increase for the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. over the last fiscal year amount, which is still $264.7 million short of what the administration requested in hopes of aiding the growth of the new agency.

An internal audit of the World Bank’s “Doing Business” project found that nine of 15 staff members interviewed reported they were pressured “both directly and indirectly by Bank management” to manipulate data during the production of the 2018 and 2020 versions of the flagship report and rankings. The audit follows reports of “data irregularities” that surfaced in August, which called into question the integrity of the bank’s analysis for China, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia emerged as the “top reformer” in the last “Doing Business” ranking, which grades countries according to their friendliness toward the private sector. That public acknowledgment, coupled with World Bank President David Malpass’ Oct. 2019 participation in Saudi Arabia's Future Investment Initiative — known as "Davos in the Desert" — coincided with an effort by the Saudi government to rehabilitate its global image in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The internal auditors categorized their findings about the “Doing Business” team’s “workplace environment” as “critical,” which is the highest level of concern. “The lack of a safe speak-up environment within the DB team led to a fear of retaliation for those who would escalate and report pressures to manipulate data. This contributed to the compromise of data integrity in the DB report,” the audit reads.

Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, told reporters this week that she plans to retire after she helps President-elect Joe Biden’s team carry out the transition. Birx, who is also still the U.S. global AIDS coordinator and head of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, has become a household name in the United States this year, while also attracting significant controversy. She previously drew criticism for overly optimistic projections about the COVID-19 pandemic and for appearing to decline opportunities to debunk false information put forward by the president. Birx shared her plans after facing backlash for traveling to a multihousehold gathering during the Thanksgiving holiday, and she cited her family’s treatment in the wake of those reports as a reason for her retirement. The global AIDS chief was appointed by President Barack Obama, and her departure will create a significant opening within U.S. global health institutions for Biden to fill at a critical time for global health security and pandemic response.

About the author

  • 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.