USAID missions told to comply with Trump's 'foreign assistance realignment'

David Hale, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. Photo by: REUTERS / Erin Scott

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Agency for International Development is already ensuring its programs comply with the Trump administration’s “foreign assistance realignment,” even though there has not yet been any public acknowledgment that this review and realignment process has concluded.

President Donald Trump announced the foreign assistance review in his September 2018 speech at the United Nations General Assembly. While a draft of the realignment order was circulated earlier this year, a final document or presidential directive has yet to be issued. With little public information available about the FAR process, it has been unclear how its principles — which focus on “realigning foreign assistance for a new era of great power competition” — have influenced USAID operations.

“We understand the intent of the President, and so we are doing our utmost to try to meet the intent of the President; even in the absence of a finalized review.”

— David Hale, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs

After Trump’s announcement, the White House National Security Council convened an interagency process that led to the formation of 10 principles, which were approved by the NSC’s Principals Committee in 2018, according to documents obtained by Devex.

USAID missions and bureaus were instructed, during the fiscal year 2019 planning process, to describe how their programs would advance these 10 principles, according to the documents. USAID’s operating units were required to submit “operational plan foreign assistance realignment narratives,” which described how the FAR principles applied within their country, region, or bureau, and included “an explanation of how the planned programming aligns to the FAR principles.”

If an operating unit’s funding did not align with the 10 principles, it was required to explain why.

Out of concern that the administration would change foreign aid policy and principles without their involvement or consent, U.S. lawmakers included language in the 2019 appropriations bill that funds USAID and the State Department, requiring that “programmatic, funding, and implementation changes resulting from implementation of the Foreign Assistance Review shall be subject to prior consultation with, and the regular notification procedures of, the Committees on Appropriations.”

The guidance documents obtained by Devex directed USAID operating units to consult with the State Department’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources if they were planning programmatic changes as a result of the FAR and if they believed those changes might require congressional authorization.

To help USAID officials determine how their program plans advance the principles of the FAR, the guidance documents included questions that each operating unit could consider.

“Win the great power competition” is the first FAR principle described in the document. To determine whether their programs were helping to do that, officials were encouraged to ask, “Is U.S. assistance being used to pay interest on debt from other nations, especially China?”

The FAR principle that includes a directive to “focus aid on friends and allies” suggested that in order to determine if a given country is a friend and ally, USAID officials should assess its diplomatic, economic, security, and values alignment with the United States. Officials might consider the country’s U.N. voting coincidence, its participation in trade partnerships, its contributions to U.S.-backed coalitions, and its respect for religious freedom, among other criteria.

For the principle related to graduating countries and organizations from U.S. assistance, officials were instructed to ask whether aid was “moving a country towards greater stability and self-reliance,” and they were encouraged to look to USAID’s “journey to self-reliance metrics” to make that determination.

As recently as this month, administration officials have said that the foreign assistance realignment process is still underway.

David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs — the third-ranking official in the State Department — told lawmakers that he did not know when the review process would be completed.

“I asked that question just the other day, and I was told that it’s still pending,” Hale said on Nov. 6 in a closed-door deposition made before members of the House of Representatives committees overseeing the Trump impeachment inquiry.

“What is pending is the broad policy guidance and guidelines that have been developed by the various players,” Hale was quoted as saying in a transcript of his testimony. “In the meantime, we are trying to -- we understand the intent of the President, and so we are doing our utmost to try to meet the intent of the President; even in the absence of a finalized review.”

USAID would not comment when asked what guidance it had received, or whether officials had been told to describe how their programs align with the FAR. Instead a USAID spokesperson referred questions to the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance which declined to comment.

Update, Dec. 3, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify USAID’s 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.