Washington state on navigating uncertainty in Washington, DC

A gloomy day in Washington, D.C. Photo by: J. Sibiga / CC BY-NC-ND

If you Google “Donald Trump malaria,” you’re likely to find comedian Jimmy Kimmel calling his wife Malaria instead of Melania at the 2016 Emmy Awards. What you won’t find is a clear sense of the U.S. president-elect’s stance on the disease.

Malaria No More CEO Martin Edlund mentioned this as an example of the uncertainty global health and development professionals are facing in light of the United States presidential election results at the Global Washington conference in Seattle.

A central question across most of the sessions at the conference Thursday was how to move forward given so any questions about the future of support from the U.S. government for issues like malaria, access to clean water, or climate change.

Here are some of the top takeaways.

1. Consider these three steps, in this order.

When trying to figure out the future of U.S. government support for the issues you care about, it’s important to determine first, what you are trying to accomplish, next, who you are dealing with, and finally, how to position yourself for success, Edlund said Thursday.

“I would make the case that ending one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases is a demonstration of America’s greatness, and you can play on Trumpian themes with that message,” he said.

For Edlund, the goal is clear: ending malaria deaths. While he had an ally in the past Republican administration, with former President George W. Bush proving to be a real champion of global health issues, he said it’s too early to tell whether malaria will be a priority for the Trump administration.

As questions remain about who will lead the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the President’s Malaria Initiative, among other key global health and development roles, organizations have to go with the little information they have. For example, Edlund mentioned how Vice President-elect Mike Pence served on the Caucus on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases in the House of Representatives.

2. Appeal to the people.

“We have a long history of working on both sides of the aisle in the U.S.,” said Carol Welch, deputy director for Africa at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in a separate panel discussion on cross sector partnerships. “I’m hopeful we will continue to be able to really cultivate bipartisan support for these efforts.”

But while she introduced optimism to the conversation, she also expressed her concern at the rise of nationalism not only in the U.S. but also across Europe.

“We’re in a period of internal retrenchment,” she said.

Many speakers expressed how the voting public is becoming much more concerned about their own well being than the well being of others, which makes it more difficult to push for programs that help others beyond our borders.

The global health and development community has to help the general public understand how these causes matter even in a context of focusing at home first, said Jolyne Sanjak, chief program officer at Landesa, a Seattle-based organization focused on land rights.

One mistake the environmental conservation movement has made is focusing their advocacy on the Amazon or the Arctic rather than focusing first on the benefits nature offers people, said Michael Stevens, Washington state director at The Nature Conservancy.  

What connected these panels was that, moving forward, the work may not change, but the messaging will have to.

3. Make the connection between defense and development.

Gen. James Mattis, the retired four-star general whose name is being floated for defense secretary, recently led Trump to reconsider his position on torture when Mattis said he preferred building trust with terrorism suspects with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.”

This interaction, and the fact that Trump continues to fill his cabinet with former generals, demonstrates how the global health and development community might be able to influence military brass in a position to influence the president, said Linh Thai, district representative for the office of Rep. Adam Smith, a Democratic representative from Washington.

“Since 9/11 there has been an increasing dance between development and defense,” Sanjak said.

While the connection between defense and development was nothing new to this audience, panelists suggested some ways to further convey the connections between the two, like the connection between impoverishment and radicalization in advocacy for refugee resettlement.

4. Identify new sources of leadership and funding.

By selecting climate change denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump confirmed fears of the impact of his presidency on global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

After reaching a major climate deal at COP21 in Paris, then pledging to press ahead at the COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, that followed, governments need to redouble their efforts leading to COP23 in Bonn, Germany, Stevens said.

While he expressed concerns about what a Trump presidency, with Pruitt at the helm of the EPA, would mean for the role of the U.S. in efforts to address climate change, Stevens also pointed to other sources of leadership on the issue. Examples include the mayors of 86 cities who gathered at C40 in Mexico City as well as the 365 companies and investors who wrote a letter urging Trump not to abandon the Paris deal.

Still, federal government support remains a critical funding stream for challenges such as the Sustainable Development Goals. The U.S. accounts for 24 percent of total official development assistance, making it the largest foreign aid donor in the world.

“If that pie gets smaller, we have to look at other pies,” said Greg Allgood, vice president of water at World Vision.

He referenced an investment of $75 million dollars to supply clean water and sanitation in rural Africa that has enabled World Vision to increase its impact tenfold in the last five years with little government funding.

As lesser known philanthropists join high profile figures such as Bill and Melinda Gates in making big bets with their billions, there are new opportunities for funding to support these causes, he said.

The theme of the 2016 Global Washington conference was Allies for Action, and at one point Thursday, the audience was reminded of the 2015 theme: Disruptive development.

“We are now in the disruption,” Thai said to the audience. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.