What happens now? 5 questions about US aid under Trump

USAID-funded cash-for-work road construction programs help link remote Ugandan communities with markets. Photo by: USAID in Africa

Donald Trump’s shock election victory over Hillary Clinton raises a lot of questions for the development community to mull over in the 10 weeks before he takes office as the next president of the United States.

But given the absence of a public service track record to examine, as well as Trump’s tendency to float policy ideas that don’t necessarily imply firm commitments, actual answers are harder to come by at this point.

There are two reasons for cautious — and relative — optimism among development professionals.

First, Trump passed up a chance to say he would entirely eliminate U.S. foreign aid programs as part of his larger push to shed government spending and bureaucracy. In a town hall hosted by former Fox News commentator Greta van Susteren, Trump said that he would continue to deliver foreign aid to countries that might otherwise turn into security risks, such as Pakistan, but hinted at a more limited role for the U.S. in humanitarian response. Whether those statements represent a considered policy commitment is unclear.

Second, the Republican Party platform — thanks to significant bipartisan outreach by aid advocates and a group of pro-development Republicans in Congress — does not dismiss the role of U.S. foreign assistance. Republicans voiced their support for performance-based aid instruments, such as the Millennium Challenge Corp., and they consistently rally behind aid initiatives that make leveraging private investment a priority.

But there is already at least one major area of concern in development circles.

Trump has a stated disregard for the threat posed by climate change. His campaign pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate agreement, which took 20 years to negotiate. Thus Trump could prove hostile to the Green Climate Fund and other climate finance bodies or erode climate change programs that exist within other U.S. aid initiatives and strategies.

As Trump assembles his cabinet over the coming weeks — and as it becomes clearer who he might tap as Secretary of State to implement his foreign policy agenda — the outlook for U.S. aid agencies and their development partners should get at least a little clearer.

But for now, here are some of the biggest questions about the future of U.S. development cooperation as the Obama-Trump transition kicks off.

1. Will USAID remain independent from the State Department?

Trump has made brash comments about eliminating federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency in his crusade to “drain” Washington's bureaucracy. He also examines policies through an America-first lens — not one of global cooperation.

If Trump wanted to pull U.S. development programs under the umbrella of a national interest-oriented U.S. foreign policy — and cut down on the number of federal agencies at the same time — absorbing USAID under the umbrella of the State Department is one conceivable step.

It’s also not without precedent. Australia’s aid agency, AusAid, was absorbed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott. And in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper folded the Canadian International Development Agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Some aid watchers are wondering whether USAID, under Trump, will be the next independent aid agency to fall — or if the U.K. Department for International Development will beat its U.S. counterpart to the punch.

Via Twitter

2. Where will Trump’s development leaders come from?

As an aggressively anti-establishment candidate with no previous experience in government, Trump faces an enormous task in finding political appointees for key roles in the development landscape. While it was possible, given her well-known contacts within the development community, to make educated guesses about whom Clinton might have appointed as USAID administrator or to head development agencies such as MCC, all bets are pretty much off when it comes to Trump.

Complicating the picture is the vow by 50 Republican foreign policy leaders not to serve in a Trump administration. While it’s possible some of these might back down from that publicly taken position, many, presumably, will not.

As former USAID Administrator Brian Atwood told Devex previously, many of the other former officials he talks to — from both parties — would never serve under Trump.

“What kind of an administration will he have if all of these mainstream, moderate Republicans refuse to join him on the foreign policy side?” Atwood said. “That worries me a great deal. I have no idea. If it’s going to be more shooting from the hip as he does every day, I have more worries than just for USAID. I have worries for the entire foreign policy establishment of the United States.”

3. What’s the future of the foreign assistance budget?

Next year, and every year of his presidency, Trump will submit a budget request to congress, which will include proposed allocations to the foreign affairs “150 account,” which funds global development programs.

Since Trump — and the Republican-controlled Congress he’ll inherit — want to increase military spending but offset any budget increases, those cuts will have to come from somewhere. Trump has said he will end all spending on anything climate change-related to make up the difference. It’s possible he and Congress would also mine foreign aid programs that don’t align with Republican priorities too — though foreign aid spending amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget.

“I can see a deal where the [spending] caps are raised for defense at the expense of non-defense. And when those cuts come down, foreign affairs and a few domestic agencies are hit harder,” Kate Eltrich, partner at Sixkiller Consulting wrote to Devex in an email.

Aid advocates will have to hope the Republican champions they have in Congress will make the case for sustained development assistance. It will likely help that some of the most significant budget items, such as the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief, President’s Malaria Initiative and MCC, were created under a Republican administration.

4. Will any development initiatives be on the chopping block?

Perhaps one of the benefits of the Obama administration’s confrontation with an opposition Congress is that the development initiatives that emerged during the president’s term have mostly been framed in ways that lend themselves to bipartisan support.

One of Obama’s signature development priorities has been outreach to young leaders in developing countries. Via Twitter

The Obama administration has worked hard to institutionalize the development programs introduced over the last eight years. In many cases they’ve been successful in achieving bipartisan authorization to sustain major initiatives through the uncertainty of future administrations.

Power Africa, the energy access initiative, and Feed the Future, Obama’s food security program, both emphasize the role of private investment in their strategies, and they are now both backed up by laws Obama signed this year — after Congress gave them the nod. Obama’s Global Health Security Agenda is another good example of a development investment that appeals directly to bipartisan concerns about national security and pandemic preparedness.

5. Can the world convince Trump that development matters?

In Marrakech, where delegates have assembled this week to start putting action behind the Paris agreement, there have been a lot of hopeful statements that Trump might come to accept the importance of development, climate change, and global cooperation in creating stability and prosperity for America and the rest of the world.

There is a sense that once a president assumes office, and receives briefings, and surveys the tools at his or her disposal, development imperatives tend to start looking more important than they might have from the campaign trail. Former President George W. Bush did not champion global development in his run for the White House, but once elected he invested heavily in global health programs to stave off an HIV/AIDS crisis.

“Over years we’ve seen presidents, no matter what their stripe, have come to appreciate that development assistance is a really important tool within their international toolbox,” said John Norris, executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at Center for American Progress.

“I think probably even Trump would end up there, very much depending on his leadership choices at State and USAID,” Norris added.

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.

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.