The U.S. Agency for International Development headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA

President Donald Trump’s administration released three global development policies within two weeks of leaving office, raising questions about whether these efforts were politically motivated and if they were based on sufficient consultation inside and outside the United States Agency for International Development.

In early January, USAID launched a gender policy, which faced criticism for failing to address LGBTQ rights, among other things. One week later, the agency launched a new economic growth policy, and the following day a revised policy on “counter-trafficking in persons.”

Many expect President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration will review and reconsider some of these policies, raising questions about whether the rush to complete them before Trump leaves office will result in a lasting legacy, or additional reviews, consultations, and paperwork.

Human trafficking

On Friday, five days before Biden’s inauguration, USAID released a revised policy on counter-trafficking in persons, which outside experts and current USAID officials say was rushed to the finish line.

Human trafficking has been one of the handful of issues that Trump’s administration has prioritized through its foreign aid and development programs — with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, taking a personal interest. The White House’s opaque approach to enforcing anti-trafficking laws caused disruption in the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019, due to a lack of transparency around funding suspensions.

The process leading to the release of this new policy faced criticism from the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of organizations working on the issue.

“We are deeply concerned that USAID did not engage in necessary stakeholder consultations prior to the release of the draft policy and is now providing only five (5) days for public comment,” the group wrote on Dec. 14.

USAID did not respond to an inquiry from Devex by time of publication.

“It’s sad because a lot of people put a lot of time into these [policies], and there’s good thought that goes into them. It just takes away from that when something that shouldn’t be politicized seems politicized because of the process,” a current USAID official said.

The official added that the effort to finalize the policy did not appear to reflect any particular political view on human trafficking, but simply a desire by the people in charge to see it launched before leaving their posts.

“What’s going to happen, I assume, is that the next administration’s going to come in and say, ‘Let’s review this,’ and maybe we’re going to have to revise it again,” the official said, adding that they doubted this is a “good use of taxpayer money.”

“A lot of people put a lot of time into these [policies]. … It just takes away from that when something that shouldn’t be politicized seems politicized because of the process.”

— A current USAID official


USAID’s new gender policy was heavily influenced by politics and fails to follow evidence-based best practices, gender experts and advocates told Devex.

When the draft policy was released in August, advocates and lawmakers protested the policy and its process and submitted comments on a vast number of concerns. When the final version was released recently, gender advocates said few of the changes they requested were incorporated. Some even called it an “anti-gender” policy that would set back gender equality efforts.

“This policy is a pretty cynical 11th hour effort to enshrine some of the anti-gender agenda of this administration in policy before they head out the door,” Nina Besser Doorley, associate director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, told Devex.

Key concerns with the gender policy are that it has a narrow, binary view of gender; leaves out LGBTQ individuals; is not based on best practices; and doesn’t use internationally accepted language about human rights, instead qualifying those rights or using the term “unalienable rights,” experts told Devex.

“It continues to be a document not based on evidence and best practice but more on ideological and political decision-making,” Aria Grabowski, policy and advocacy manager at the International Center for Research on Women, told Devex.

New USAID gender policy driven by politics, not best practice, advocates say

After USAID released its new gender policy, advocates said the effort to push through the flawed policy in the waning days of the Trump administration is politically motivated and will set back U.S. gender equality efforts.

In an email, a USAID spokesperson told Devex that the policy does reflect best practices and promote key agency priorities. A team of technical leads and USAID leadership reviewed the comments for more than two months and “revised the draft to strengthen the document both from a technical perspective as well as to ensure clarity,” the spokesperson wrote.

All missions, bureaus, and offices will need to implement the policy, which will also be used to design, monitor, and evaluate programs “as appropriate,” the spokesperson wrote.

Once in office, Biden’s administration should freeze the policy and “begin a process of developing a technically sound update of the 2012 [gender] policy,” Justin Fugle, head of policy at Plan International, told Devex.

Writing a new policy and going through the required comment and notification process will take time, so it may be some 18 months before a new document can be released, Fugle said, adding that in the meantime, the Biden administration could issue other guidance.

Economic growth

While perhaps less controversial than the other policies, USAID also released a new economic growth policy intended to elevate the issue “as central to reducing poverty and dependency” shortly before the end of the Trump administration.

The policy emphasizes investing in enterprise-driven development, with USAID support helping to improve market and governance systems so the private sector can step up to address development challenges. It also says the policy is key to the “journey to self-reliance,” making countries self-sufficient and creating benefits for the U.S.

A new policy was needed in part because a lot has changed — including the agency’s thinking and approach — since the previous policy was released in 2008, William Butterfield, economic growth policy technical lead at USAID, said during a virtual event last week.

This policy addresses issues, including best practices for resisting economic shocks and working in fragile states, which weren’t mentioned in the previous policy, Butterfield said. What hasn’t changed is that USAID’s focus in these programs remain on improving enterprise-level productivity, he added.

One of the most tangible changes is that the policy sets a goal that 75% of all economic growth programs will include an agency economic analysis as part of the design phase by 2026. USAID also aims for 75% of program evaluations in the sector to address cost-effectiveness and/or impact by 2026.

What's in store for Trump-era development priorities

Though viewed as having an adversarial relationship with foreign aid, the Trump administration did set up a number of development-related initiatives, policies, and even a new agency. What will happen to them with the change in administrations?

The new policy is the result of an “extremely participatory” process lasting nearly two years, Michelle Bekkering, assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, said at the event.

While she’s heard a lot of questions about launching the policy at the end of the administration, Tessie San Martin, the president and CEO at Plan International USA who helped craft the previous policy, said that from her perspective, the timing is “fine.”

COVID-19 has led to a slow in economic growth, an increase in poverty, and rising inequality, particularly for women, so “if you put politics aside in terms of timing … the fact of the matter is now is the time to be thinking about economic growth, not just as a sidebar of what to do in global health pandemic response, but as an essential element of development and what USAID and the U.S. government does,” she said.

There are a few areas where the policy falls short though, San Martin said. The policy focuses on inclusive growth but should be more centered on poverty reduction and addressing inequality, it doesn’t include enough detail about fragile settings where the typical sort of enterprise-driven growth strategies might not work as well, and it needs to address the so-called digital divide, she said.

About the authors

  • 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.
  • 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.