NEW YORK — While the U.S. government’s presence at the United Nations General Assembly was massively overshadowed by the political crisis unfolding around U.S. President Donald Trump, other U.S. officials attempted to maintain some focus on the administration’s development and humanitarian priorities.
In the lead up to UNGA, much of the U.S. development community’s focus was on whether or not Trump would use his annual speech to outline a new framework for American foreign assistance — the culmination of a review process the president announced from the general assembly podium last year. A draft of that review confirmed what many expected: It proposed to pull funding from countries that are either under the influence of America’s adversaries or oppose America’s positions at bodies such as the U.N., to shift funds from multilateral to bilateral programs, and to use aid to promote America’s business interests.
For reasons that remain unclear, those policy proposals did not make the cut for Trump’s speech on Tuesday. It could be that the White House is still working through some internal disagreements over the content of the framework — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is said to be unhappy with a section related to multilateral development banks — or it could be that the foreign assistance review will never see the light of day at all. Its contents were seen to largely reflect the views of former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who Trump replaced this month with Robert O’Brien, who is known as much less of an ideologue.
In place of a new policy for foreign aid, Trump emphasized his administration’s core three humanitarian and development concerns: Venezuela’s ongoing crisis, migration from Central America, and international religious freedom.
“To the Venezuelans trapped in this nightmare: Please know that all of America is united behind you. The United States has vast quantities of humanitarian aid ready and waiting to be delivered,” Trump said.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green announced an additional $119 million in humanitarian assistance for people affected by Venezuela’s crisis, including $36 million to support programs inside Venezuela.
After raising alarms about the politicization of U.S. aid at the Venezuelan border in February, some humanitarian experts welcomed the administration’s willingness to support independent relief efforts inside the country by channeling funds through impartial relief agencies — while noting that the White House’s long-term goal is still regime change.
On the issue of migration from Central America, Trump lashed out at “a growing cottage industry of radical activists and non-governmental organizations that promote human smuggling,” and he warned would-be migrants against trying to cross into the U.S.
Trump’s rhetoric dovetailed with his administration’s efforts this week to broker a new agreement with Honduras — the third migration agreement with a Northern Triangle country — which will see the U.S. provide the government with assistance to improve their asylum and protection system, despite widespread concerns that Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador remain dangerous places for many people who might look to claim asylum.
On Monday, speaking in Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced that the U.S. will resume some of the assistance to Central American countries that it previously suspended, citing “a real sense of ownership, of innovation — which is new, frankly, in the last year from the region.”
On Thursday the administration announced its plans to cap America’s own refugee admissions numbers at 18,000 next year, down from the current limit of 30,000, and a far cry from the 110,000 refugee admissions the Obama administration permitted during its last year in office.
Prior to his main speech, at the same time as the U.N. climate summit on Monday, Trump hosted an event on global religious freedom, where he announced $25 million for the protection of religious sites and relics. Trump’s emphasis on religious freedom has energized advocates in the U.S., many of whom see an opportunity to take their efforts global by aligning them with U.S. diplomacy and development.
While Trump’s general assembly speech offered little about his administration’s overall approach to foreign aid, USAID Administrator Green used his time in New York to champion the reforms he is putting in place inside the agency. Speaking at the Concordia annual summit, Green described his vision for “enterprise-driven development.” In his view, that means involving the private sector at the outset of USAID’s engagement with a country or program and using collaborative program design tools such as the broad agency announcement or results-based financing instruments such as a development impact bond to spur innovation.
“USAID knows that it is not the only legitimate driver of progress. In fact, we don't want to be. Instead, what excites us are emerging technologies, private enterprise embracing emerging markets, and an agency interested in real honest to goodness collaboration,” Green said.