What the aid community can do to withstand Trump's 'wrecking ball' budget

Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of CARE at the CARE National Conference held at the Mead Center for American Theatre on May 22, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Photo by:Carey Wagner / CARE

The Trump administration’s budget recommendation may take a “wrecking ball” to foreign aid but the development community needs to seize this opportunity to build a broader constituency, according to the chief executive officer of CARE USA.

Michelle Nunn described the President’s budget proposal as both a challenge and a “tremendous opportunity” for aid workers to make the case for increased financial, public and political support for their work.

Released on Tuesday, the budget proposes cutting development spending by a third in order to bolster the defense budget by $54 billion. It marks a distinct move away from previous global development budgets which have generally enjoyed bipartisan support, as Devex reported.

“We all know that we have a tremendous opportunity and challenge before us and that’s certainly clear from the administration’s budget … If there was any moment in which we needed to build the broader constituency for development and humanitarian leadership, this is it,” she said.

Nunn spoke exclusively to Devex during CARE’s national conference in Washington, D.C., last week, where advocates spent two days attending talks and training sessions before meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, in an effort to convince them to save the aid budget.

She said that while strategic reforms are always welcome, the cuts outlined in the proposed budget could be devastating.

“I don’t know of anybody in the aid community that doesn’t think there should continue to be reforms and ways of improving our efforts, but we need to make sure that we are truly focused on reform, and that we’re not taking a wrecking ball to the efforts,” she said.

Nunn offered four tips to development professionals about what they and their organizations can do to prepare for the potential cuts.

1. Communicate, activate and engage your constituencies.

Rallying support from all parts of the development community and its supporters will be crucial to withstanding the Trump administration’s proposed cuts, Nunn said.

She also stressed the importance of making sure that, as nonprofits, they “lift up every voice” to spread the message of what could be lost if cuts are implemented.

“As non-profits we’re thinking about this — are they engaging their donors, their volunteers, their supporters, are they communicating effectively about what’s actually happening and what’s at stake and are they inviting action and participation by their supporters?” she said.

2. Tell stories about what these budget cuts will mean for people’s lives.

Nunn said nonprofits need to use their unique position as the “bridge” between aid funds and communities in developing countries to tell powerful stories about the impact cuts will have on the ground.

“I think it’s incumbent upon the nonprofit community to tell that story in a way that they uniquely can,” she said, adding that this would involve analysis, storytelling and communication.

When you contextualize the budget cuts at the individual or community level, the story resonates with the public and policymakers in a different way, she said.

“It’s one thing to say $20 billion [are] being cut … but it’s another thing to say that means that 11,000 women that had safe births last year might be faced with unsafe delivery and the life and death consequences of that,” she explained.

3.  Be transparent with staff.

As the CEO of a large NGO — one which received 23 percent of its funding from the U.S. government last year — Nunn is well aware that budget headlines are creating huge uncertainty for her staff and others working in the sector.

She advises other non-profit leaders to be transparent with staff about what’s happening; and reassure them you are “fighting hard” to protect the organization’s funding, to tell their story and represent the effectiveness of their work.

It’s also important to be honest about how severe the cuts could be, and how difficult it will be to replace them, she said.

Part of this involves having backup plans in place, so that staff are confident that if cuts come, the organization is not going to be “caught off guard,” Nunn said.

It’s about “letting them know from a leadership perspective that we are doing our organizational due diligence to be prepared for the full spectrum of eventualities, and are thinking through how we will we find other forms of funding,” she said.

Scenario planning can be a helpful tool: “While you’re fighting hard for one scenario, the kind of planning that enables you to envision a variety of outcomes is helpful,” she added.

4.  Use this as an opportunity to change public perceptions of foreign aid.

The proposed budget cuts present an opportunity to open the debate around U.S. foreign aid spending and challenge the widespread misconceptions among Americans about aid, especially the amount of money being spent, Nunn said.

Why is foreign aid an easy cut?

NGOs looking to push for smaller cuts in the Trump budget would do well to look to Australia, where convincing voters of the importance of foreign aid has never been an easy task.

CARE has been running an advocacy campaign which emphasises that foreign assistance funding represents just one percent of the U.S. budget, or one cent on the federal dollar.  

“Many people think it’s 20 cents or 30 cents on the dollar and so [we are] making sure that people understand what the reality of our current threshold of investment is, and also the efficacy of that investment,” Nunn explained.

It is also important to remind people that poverty has decreased by half in the last 25 years, and that U.S. development assistance has been reformed to become more sustainable in recent years, she added.

Summing up her advice, the CARE USA boss said that Trump’s proposed cuts could actually help put international aid in a stronger position going forward.

“If we do all of those things and we engage millions more people in truly understanding this, because it is such a moment of existential concern, I think that galvanizing impact could be quite positive over the long term,” she said.

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.