WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has been seen as having an adversarial relationship with foreign aid, but over the past four years it has set up a number of development-related initiatives, policies, and even a new agency. In the next administration, some priorities will undoubtedly shift and a few initiatives may disappear, while others may get revamped.
The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is expected to “take a hard look” at the policies, continuing the tradition of building on what worked in previous administrations and not just jettisoning all efforts, said George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
All indications are that the Biden administration will bring a different approach to development and that there is likely to be more high-level leadership on foreign assistance, development experts told Devex.
Here’s a look at what may happen with some Trump development priorities:
US International Development Finance Corporation
The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is likely to be the lasting legacy of the Trump administration when it comes to development policy. The launch of the new development finance institution was the most significant change to the U.S. development architecture in more than a decade.
DFC, created by bipartisan legislation in Congress, will continue in the new administration, but some development experts told Devex they would like to see new leadership take a close look at how it works and ensure that it is staying true to its development mandate.
The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is about to mark its first birthday. The agency has been busy this year, but development experts worry it may have lost its way.
The co-chair of the Biden transition team is a former CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, DFC’s predecessor agency, giving development finance a more central role in the development team of a transition than in the past and a potential signal that the agency will continue to be a priority.
Given that there will likely be budget constraints, the Biden administration will also likely look to DFC to further its development objectives, including on climate, experts told Devex.
Some of the key issues the new administration should evaluate are DFC’s strategic direction, ensuring that development — not foreign policy — is guiding decision-making, and the risk profile of the agency, with development advocates urging it to take on more risk and focus less on making money for the U.S. government.
USAID transformation and the ‘Journey to Self-Reliance’
The Biden administration is likely to continue the U.S Agency for International Development transformation, according to development experts, and it will likely push Congress to approve one of the final components that has been held up: combining the policy and budget offices.
However, the agency’s “Journey to Self-Reliance” framework and the term itself are unlikely to continue, as a lot of career staffers were uncomfortable with the framing. Allies abroad thought it was just a code for cutting the budget and prefer language of shared responsibility and interconnectedness rather than self-reliance.
“A lot of people find the phrase ‘self-reliance’ to be troublesome, but the focus on how to move countries from one point to another, to advance on the development spectrum as a general frame, isn’t a bad one,” said Conor Savoy, executive director at the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.
One area where the incoming administration can improve on the concept of helping countries along the development ladder is by thinking more clearly about what comes after foreign assistance and better coordinating the various U.S. development institutions, including the Millennium Challenge Corp. and DFC, he said.
As the Journey to Self-Reliance framework has been built into USAID’s systems, it may take time to reflect some of the language in a variety of documents, and an incoming administration will have to assess what needs to change, Savoy said.
While USAID reform is secure, the new administration may take a look at a few of the changes — for example, whether the structure of the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation makes sense. There is also a lot of funding as part of the New Partnerships Initiative, which is under significant scrutiny, so there are likely to be changes there, a senior development expert, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told Devex.
“A lot of people find the phrase ‘self-reliance’ to be troublesome, but the focus on how to move countries from one point to another … isn’t a bad one.”— Conor Savoy, executive director, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network
Prosper Africa, which was first announced in late 2018 by then-national security adviser John Bolton, has taken a long time to come to fruition — with some aspects still unclear to some development experts. In June 2019, more details emerged, including a goal to double two-way trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa.
In November of this year, USAID announced a new Prosper Africa program that will “offer new and expanded support services to increase two-way trade and investment between Africa and the United States substantially,” according to a press release. The program would spend about $500 million over 5 years, “subject to the availability of funds.”
The program will launch in early 2021 and take a continentwide approach, with satellite offices that will “provide well-coordinated services aligned with private-sector needs” and represent a “new way of doing business.”
According to a Congressional Research Service report, Prosper Africa is not actually a new foreign aid program but rather an effort to harmonize existing programs. The Prosper Africa secretariat is at USAID with trade hubs in southern and western Africa and deal teams at each embassy in Africa helping to implement the initiative.
Prosper Africa has received $50 million in funding in the past two fiscal years, and the Trump administration requested $75 million for the 2021 fiscal year to accelerate trade and investment by facilitating business transactions and using blended finance to de-risk investment opportunities.
The new administration will likely see what makes the most sense and, in the meantime, “slow-walk” the initiative as it conducts a review, the senior development expert said.
Prosper Africa was modeled after the Power Africa initiative, but it should do more to build off of what works with that initiative, including focusing not just on financing but how to make a whole sector work more efficiently and be more attractive to investors, Savoy said.
The Trump administration's Africa policy has been slow to evolve and remains rather opaque, though it has a clear focus on trade and investment and competition with China.
“They kind of put the idea out there. … There is no real meat to the bones,” Savoy said. However, there is an opportunity for the Biden administration to “redefine our relationship with Africa” as not one that focuses on assistance alone but on economic growth and long-term sustainability, he said.
The new administration can take the ideas behind Prosper Africa and accelerate them, and this will take new resources — which have been limited in the Trump administration, Savoy said.
“Absent resources, it’s just words,” he said. “We are basically saying choose us over the Chinese because the Chinese give you unsustainable debt levels, but we give you freedom and we’re not backing it up with anything.”
Countering China became a key feature of the Trump administration’s development policy, and while the Biden administration will have to contend with China competition, it’s likely that policy will be less oriented around it, development experts said.
“I don’t think USAID will be viewed nearly as much through the lens of great power competition as it is today,” the senior development expert said.
The Trump administration launched the Blue Dot Network, which aims to bring together governments, the private sector, and civil society to create shared standards for global infrastructure development and certify projects, in large part to counter China’s infrastructure investments.
Not much has happened with the initiative, and there is still no process to credential good infrastructure, Ingram said. If that goes forward, it will need to be brought down to the basics and potentially rebranded, he added.
Addressing competition with China, particularly in low-income countries and Africa, will remain an issue for the Biden administration, but it is likely to have a different approach and different rhetoric, development experts told Devex.
“The Biden administration is going to have to come up with a strategy writ large with development a part of it. … I’m hoping that they will come up with an articulate, balanced strategy to take China on where it needs to be taken on and offers the ability to collaborate on climate change, SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], and humanitarian issues,” Ingram said.
The administration could work with allies to have a dialogue with China about its Belt and Road Initiative and push for the adoption of more accepted norms around transparency, accountability, and local ownership, he said.
Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative
The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative was championed by presidential adviser Ivanka Trump. While advocates have found some positives from a governmentwide effort to focus on women’s economic empowerment, the initiative is also viewed as a vanity project and is likely to be changed in the Biden administration, if it is kept.
“I can see that being continued but in a way that is revamped into a broader concept of women’s empowerment beyond just economic,” Ingram said.
One of the key criticisms raised by development professionals and gender advocates is that the initiative is too narrow and siloed, leaving out critical issues such as health and education that also play a key role in women’s economic empowerment.
Legislation was introduced in Congress earlier this year in an effort to codify the W-GDP Initiative, but draft bills in the House and Senate have made little progress.
“It was a vanity project for [Ivanka Trump], but it is an important focus and an issue one should carry forward. But I’d like to see it done fundamentally differently,” Savoy said.
W-GDP has laid a foundation that the Biden administration can build on, and “it would be a shame if it didn’t embrace that and continue to grow it,” the senior development expert told Devex, adding that “it may lose luster.”
Global health security structure
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged that the U.S. will lead on global COVID-19 response during his administration, but questions of financing and government coordination still have to be resolved.
The Trump administration earlier this year proposed a major new global health security initiative called the President’s Response to Outbreaks, which would consolidate international pandemic preparedness, create a new State Department coordinator, and develop a new fund to fight pandemics.
The announcement of the new global health response framework was met with concern and criticism from global health experts and former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios, who warned that the proposal would dismember USAID.
While it seemed the administration was on the brink of a formal announcement of the new global health security structure, it has not yet materialized. Congressional efforts to pass legislation that would have a similar effect, but which some experts said would preserve USAID’s independence and leadership on global health, have also failed to progress.
If Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate, it seems likely that Sen. James Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will reintroduce his bill in the new Congress. If Democrats take the majority, a different bill addressing the issue is likely, the senior development expert told Devex.
It seems clear that a Biden administration will take on the issue of global health security, though development experts have said it is likely to look different. Biden’s COVID-19 plan commits to reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization and to reestablishing a National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which Trump eliminated.
The Biden team pledged to elevate the Global Health Security Agenda and create a Global Health Emergency Board, but it is unclear what options it will advance on global pandemic response.