U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photo by: Phil Roeder / CC BY

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for U.S. president, would have a different approach to foreign aid — one that would prioritize development, look to multilateral partnerships, and focus on a series of issues that have not seen as much attention during the President Donald Trump administration, according to experts and campaign documents.

“We’d bring aid back to the center of our foreign policy — the emphasis would be on diplomacy, on democracy, and on development,” Antony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign, said at a May online event hosted by Meridian.

Biden is one of the most knowledgeable presidential candidates yet about development, said Susan Reichle, president and CEO of the International Youth Foundation, who previously spent about 25 years at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Having people understand it, how it works, what needs to be done on day one is something expected with a Biden administration,” she said.

Biden was “very supportive of development” as vice president, and at USAID’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2011, he made a speech that stuck with those who were there, Reichle said. She said he was “talking passionately about the role of development, with really deep knowledge of how USAID and development works.”

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In a Biden administration, there would be a “significant shift in attitude towards development and foreign aid,” said George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, describing it as a transition from negative to positive, from being transactional in nature to more strategic.

If elected, Biden would have a more collaborative approach to aid and development, he said. Biden would look to work with other countries, to rejoin multilateral institutions, and to reassert the U.S. in a global leadership position, Ingram said.

Blinken said he would like to see a “revitalization” of foreign aid, with the U.S. working more closely with other countries and strengthening or building international mechanisms that make it work more effectively.

“[If] you’re not pursuing an effective development agenda, if you’re not pursuing an effective climate change agenda, you're going to see conflicts grow both in number and in intensity, you’re going to see mass migrations of people, you're going to see more and more fights over scarce resources, you’re going to see diseases spreading ever more easily — none of that are we immune to. It's just in our basic self-interest to figure out ways to do this and do it more effectively,” Blinken said.

A new approach

Alliances with other countries have frayed, and the U.S. will need to work to bring people back together and build trust and confidence. It will need to do so by taking action domestically and showing that the U.S. is making the same types of difficult commitments it expects from others, said a former development official, who asked not to be identified.

“Our policies at home and abroad are deeply connected,” a policy document on Biden’s website reads. “As president, he will advance the security, prosperity, and values of the United States by taking immediate steps to renew our own democracy and alliances, protect our economic future, and once more place America at the head of the table, leading the world to address the most urgent global challenges.”

On issues from election integrity and disinformation to concerns about electronic voting — issues that affect every democracy — the U.S. will need to think about how to address them both domestically and internationally, the former official said.

Policy coherence and integration are going to be very important, and there are not great mechanisms for integrating foreign and domestic policies, so the Biden administration would have to build out the capabilities to do so effectively, the official said.

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The Trump administration has significantly eroded trust, and some development experts question whether partners will be quick to welcome the U.S. back into the fold.

“Other players will welcome the U.S. back, but they won’t welcome us back to be at the head of the table,” Ingram said. “They’ll welcome us back, and we’ll have to demonstrate that we can be part of the leadership. … We’re going to have to prove ourselves.”

Development infrastructure

While the posture toward development would change and there would not be the risk of significant budget cuts like during the Trump administration, there are ongoing debates about how a Biden administration might approach foreign aid.

A key debate within the campaign, and among development experts, is whether a Biden administration should go bold in its approach and consider major reforms or take a more measured approach, according to a senior development expert who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“There’s a struggle over do you go in big and try to do something fundamentally to restructure the way foreign assistance is delivered or do you just tinker around the margins and fix smaller things,” the expert said.

Going big could mean reorganizing U.S. foreign assistance, from the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance and the Treasury’s role at multilateral development banks to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation — or even rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act, the expert said.

While some want to go big, especially if Democrats also gain a Senate majority, others believe that the State Department and USAID have a lot of work to do just to rebuild and staff up basic operations and that it would “stress the system too much to undertake a massive reorganization,” the expert said.

Rebuilding USAID and the State Department, having USAID lead global pandemic response, and elevating the agency’s role on the National Security Council will all likely be part of Biden’s foreign policy efforts, according to multiple development experts.

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A number of experts indicated that a Biden administration would continue the ongoing USAID reorganization efforts and would likely push to get Congress to approve one of the final components: combining the policy and budget offices, which has been held up.

However, the agency’s “Journey to Self-Reliance” framework is 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, the senior development expert said.

Funding foreign aid will be a “given,” and while budgets will be stretched, it is an area where “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Blinken said. “The resources that we dedicate to this traditionally are miniscule relative to our overall budget, and so that’s something we’d have to look at very carefully and see how we could do more and how we could do it more effectively.”


Biden has made it clear that addressing climate change would be a central part of his presidency, beginning with rejoining the Paris Agreement.

In foreign aid, climate policies are likely to manifest in two key ways: through efforts to limit development finance for fossil fuels and by making climate central to development policy.

A Biden administration would take climate and development policies from the administration of former President Barack Obama to the next stage, the former development official said. Obama signed an executive order during his time in office that required all development assistance to be “climate-proofed” but a Biden administration would require all development investments to be “climate-positive,” the former official said.

Climate would be a central part of how the U.S. thinks about development investment, planning, and strategy over time in a Biden administration, the official said.

“Other players will welcome the U.S. back, but they won’t welcome us back to be at the head of the table.”

— George Ingram, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

On the finance front, Biden would pressure China to stop financing fossil fuel energy through its Belt and Road Initiative, work through the G-20 group of leading nations to eliminate development finance institution funding for coal “in all but the poorest countries,” and strive to offer alternate sources of finance, including through debt relief that could be used to fund climate-friendly development, according to Biden’s climate plan.

The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation would be required to reduce the carbon footprint of its portfolio and, along with the U.S. Export-Import Bank, be prohibited from financing any coal-fired power plants, according to the climate plan.

A Biden administration would also fulfill the U.S. pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which is designed to help lower-income countries address climate challenges and work with international financial institutions to provide debt relief if funds are used to fund climate-friendly development.

Women and girls

A Biden administration would have a “government-wide focus of uplifting the rights of women and girls at home and around the world, including by focusing on measures to address gender-based violence internationally,” according to campaign documents.

One of the administration’s first actions would be to repeal the Mexico City Policy and it would also fund the United Nations Population Fund.

While the Trump administration has worked on women’s economic empowerment through the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, the Biden administration would likely broaden that work and take a more comprehensive view of advancing women around the world, Ingram said.

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Biden would seek to break down barriers to women’s political empowerment by supporting civic education and leadership development; ensure the full implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Act; and elevate women economically by increasing girls’ access to education, improving women’s access to capital, working with others to address legal and attitudinal barriers to equity, according to campaign documents.

A Biden administration would also support efforts to address sexual violence in conflict situations, hold perpetrators accountable, support United Nations efforts to that effect, and support diplomatic and development programs that address and prevent conflict, requiring them to address gender based violence, according to Biden’s plan to end violence against women.

Global health

Biden has a detailed policy on the COVID-19 response, which also addresses the need to tackle the disease and potential pandemics abroad in the future.

“Even as we take urgent steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19 at home, we must also help lead the response to this crisis globally. In doing so, we will lay the groundwork for sustained global health security leadership into the future,” according to the policy on his website.

Biden would bring back the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which existed in the Obama administration but was eliminated by the Trump administration in 2018. USAID would lead the international response in a Biden administration, though the State Department would also play a key role in ensuring that the U.S. has a role in global decisions about the outbreak, according to Biden’s COVID-19 plan.

A Biden administration would also create a Global Health Emergency Board to coordinate crisis response for vulnerable communities. The board will be charged with working with a variety of partners to offset costs of vaccines in developing countries, harmonize economic measures, and establish high standards for transparency and communication, according to the plan.

Biden would also expand the Global Health Security Agenda, fully staff all federal agencies, and establish an assistant secretary at the State Department to oversee an office of Global Health Security and Diplomacy.

A Biden administration would call for fully resourcing the World Health Organization, including its Contingency Fund for Emergencies, and would work to build a global coalition to address pandemic preparedness, mobilize investments, and enhance accountability, according to the plan.

Central America

As the number of unaccompanied child migrants surged in 2014, Obama tasked Biden with developing a plan to address root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Along with the Inter-American Development Bank, he worked directly with the leaders of those nations to target areas where violence, poverty, and out-migration were highest. The Alliance for Prosperity mobilized $750 million in U.S. foreign assistance while also requiring the three countries to contribute their own resources.

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Biden was insistent that the U.S. funds needed to be contingent on reforms by the Northern Triangle governments, which had long suffered from endemic corruption. His personal diplomacy secured such commitments as a part of the Alliance for Prosperity, which aimed to improve conditions in the region to allow people to lead successful lives in their own communities.

Trump took a different tack toward the region, insisting the only way to stop migration was to build a border wall and cut off U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle until the countries reduced flows. If elected, Biden has said he would pivot back to investing in the region’s development with a $4 billion, four-year plan that would address corruption, focus on poverty reduction and economic development, improve security and the rule of law, and mobilize private investment.

Democracy and human rights

There is growing evidence that suggests an ongoing erosion of democracy across mature and emerging democracies, which are backsliding toward authoritarianism, the former development official told Devex.

“The decline needs a more fundamental response than anything we’ve seen in a long time,” and addressing the challenge would be a key priority of the Biden administration, the official said.

Biden would convene a summit for democracy during his first year in office to “honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values,” according to campaign documents.

The summit would focus on new country commitments around fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. It will include civil society organizations and push the private sector, including technology companies, to make their own commitments.

Reporter Teresa Welsh contributed to this article.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.