What would Hillary Clinton's US aid agenda look like?

Hillary Clinton during the Democratic National Convention held in Philandelphia. Photo by: Ida Mae Astute / ABC / CC BY-ND

Hillary Clinton’s development credentials are literally written on the wall inside the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Ronald Reagan Building headquarters in Washington, D.C.

An 800-pound bronze plaque commemorating Clinton’s “invaluable contribution to worldwide development” as first lady of the United States was installed in 1999, removed and warehoused in 2000 for the duration of George W. Bush’s presidency, and hoisted into place again after Clinton took over as secretary of state in 2009. The plaque commemorates Clinton’s commitment, in her own words, to “expanding the circle of human dignity.”

After last week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Clinton — whom Devex once dubbed “global development’s star player” — is now the Democratic nominee for the presidency. And while the general election race is tight, Clinton is favored to win. In the meantime, development professionals, partners, experts, and advocates wonder what her presidency would mean for their organizations and missions, for the allocation of limited U.S. foreign assistance dollars, and for development’s place in American foreign policy.

Devex spoke with aid officials and experts at last month’s White House Summit on Global Development and attended the convention in Philadelphia. More than a dozen development professionals, Clinton supporters, advisers and skeptics shared their expectations, hopes and anxieties about what Hillary Clinton’s U.S. aid agenda might look like if she becomes the next president. Some, particularly those with ties to Clinton’s campaign, shared views on background in order to speak candidly.

According to many of them, a Clinton administration would likely draw stronger ties between development investments and U.S. national security goals, though analysts differ over whether that would help or hurt USAID’s independence. Some have speculated that Clinton, given her strong personal engagement with development programs, could centralize development decision-making inside the White House. Others have asked how President Hillary Clinton would separate the Clinton Foundation’s heavily scrutinized relationships from U.S. government interests — and what role Bill and Chelsea Clinton, currently co-chairs of the Clinton Foundation, might play in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Many observers emphasized Clinton’s unique opportunity to raise the profile of the “development voice” in complex foreign policy discussions. Nearly all agreed that the Democratic nominee would enter office with an unprecedented knowledge of U.S. development programs.

“We have never had a president as thoroughly versed in complex foreign policy issues as Hillary Clinton,” Democratic New York Rep. Nita Lowey, a powerful congressional voice on development, wrote to Devex in an email.

In 1995, Clinton took a big step onto the world stage in Beijing where she told the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women that “human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights.” Multiple speakers reminded the Philadelphia crowd and millions of television viewers of that moment during the four-day political spectacle last week.

“As president she would be more fully immersed in development policy issues than we’ve ever seen from an American president on day one.”

— Scott Morris, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development

Clinton traveled extensively throughout the developing world as first lady, visiting USAID projects and using her position to get them more funding. Former USAID Administrator Brian Atwood (who also heads Devex’s board of advisers) recalled a conversation with then-President Bill Clinton. He told Atwood, “Hillary called me again last night, Brian, and every time she goes on a trip she wants more money for USAID.”

“She was the biggest supporter I had,” said Atwood, who led the effort to install the plaque at the Ronald Reagan Building, lent his words to its inscription, and then took flak from government spending watchdogs when it turned out to be larger and heavier than he’d expected. The plaque has since been paid for with private donations, Atwood said.

“As president she would be more fully immersed in development policy issues than we’ve ever seen from an American president on day one,” said Scott Morris, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

“Given the set of issues I care about, it’s very encouraging to look at her track record,” Morris said.

Raising the development voice

This U.S. presidential election pits two stark visions of America’s role in the world against each other.

Donald Trump’s candidacy has revived a strain of zero-sum economic and geopolitical deal-making, while Hillary Clinton champions global cooperation to achieve shared stability — through diplomacy, coalitions of military deterrence, and development investments. While Trump and his supporters proclaim “America First” and deride multilateral cooperation as self-defeating “globalism,” Clinton considers it a hallmark of American leadership to participate in and shape these institutions and priorities, according to campaign advisers, who affirm that Clinton would continue to emphasize Washington’s role in global affairs as president.

“Come January 2017, when [Hillary Clinton] takes that oath of office, what will be important … [is] reassuring the world that American leadership remains, is here to stay, and will continue to be how we operate on the international stage,” Clinton’s foreign policy adviser Laura Rosenberger said at an international affairs side event in Philadelphia last week.

Clinton often speaks about about “smart power”; she considers military, diplomatic and development tools as three pillars of an integrated foreign policy. In Clinton’s view, the interconnectedness of global challenges and opportunities demands it.

“I believe that we are going to need a whole of government approach to these issues,” said former secretary of state and Clinton supporter Madeleine Albright in Philadelphia last week.

“This is not just a matter of using diplomacy. It is a matter of using the economic tools. It is a matter of understanding the importance of the media … of understanding the importance of the threat of the use of force and how that works with diplomacy and how to use intelligence and law enforcement,” she said.

Global development has not historically occupied a central position in any U.S. president’s list of responsibilities. That begs the question whether it would make a significant difference to the U.S. development enterprise to have a president well-versed in development issues in the White House. But supporters say Clinton’s influence would lie in her ability to make the case for development investments as a more central pillar of U.S. national security.

“What’s important to think of is her sitting at the head of the table as people debate what to do on national security issues, and I believe that at the head of the table she will insist that the development voice be heard,” Atwood said.

Clinton’s attention to the “development voice,” including on questions of national security, may mean a greater focus on global crisis prevention, as opposed to response, Atwood said. On issues such as conflict and stability, forced displacement and climate change, Clinton would be uniquely positioned to raise the profile of development investments as a preventative tool.

“The risk is that if she still sees herself as secretary of state while she’s president and starts merging USAID more into State, it will simply destroy the agency.”

— Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator

“She does like to use the word ‘invest.’ I think investing in prevention has been something that has been missing in both Democratic and Republican administrations. And I believe she will bring to the table an interest in that aspect of national security,” Atwood said.

“Using all of the tools of our power … being engaged in the world on an ongoing basis means that we reduce the chance of conflict,” Rosenberger reiterated last week. “For [Clinton], that’s really a critical starting point.”

Critics point out that Clinton, as secretary of state, had several opportunities to test this prevention hypothesis, and on some occasions it did not bear out. When post-Arab Spring states sought U.S. financial support for democratic transitions and economic stability, they got little and it arrived late. The region has since been mired in crisis and a retreat from democratic norms.

Clinton played a key role in South Sudan’s transition to independence, and the U.S. government funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the fledgling country. With the world’s newest nation now teetering on the brink of collapse, it’s fair to ask just how much stability development dollars can buy. If Clinton positions development as a central instrument of global stability, the burden will be on her to prove that aid programs can actually prevent national and regional meltdowns from happening.

Andrew Natsios, who served as USAID’s administrator under George W. Bush, worries that Clinton might make USAID even more subordinate to the State Department, putting development investments at the service of diplomatic priorities.

“The risk is that if she still sees herself as Secretary of State while she’s president and starts merging USAID more into State, it will simply destroy the agency,” Natsios said.

“[Diplomats are] focused on country problems, and they see foreign aid, frankly, as a tool of diplomacy. I don’t care what they say in terms of their rhetoric. What operationally happens is they subordinate the development agenda to the more short-term pressures that all State Departments all the time are under,” Natsios said.

Clinton could ease some concerns about USAID’s independence through her appointments, Natsios said, by naming a secretary of state with a clear background in geopolitics, and less interest in interfering in development programs.

Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participates in the USAID town hall meeting at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. in February 2012. Photo by: U.S. State Department

Hands on, hands off

If development practitioners have the choice between a president’s benign neglect of USAID or a president’s personal interest and involvement with USAID, Atwood said they would be wise to welcome the latter.

“I can understand the view of development professionals [who say], ‘Leave us alone. We know best how to do this,’” Atwood said. “But in fact, if there is benign neglect ... in the secretary of state and the president and others within the administration, there will be benign neglect as well in the Congress, and [USAID] will not have the budget to do what they need to do.”

Whom Clinton picks for USAID’s next administrator — or the decision to reappoint current Administrator Gayle Smith, a prominent administration figure with close access to the White House — would go a long way in determining how Clinton regards USAID’s standing among other bureaucracies.

Clinton’s main rival in the Democratic primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, demonstrated little interest in foreign policy and development, focusing on domestic inequality, trade, and education. Any personnel compromises Clinton brokered with Sanders to gain his support in the general election are unlikely to fall in the foreign policy domain — unlike with Obama’s election in 2008, when he appointed Clinton secretary of state and ceded influence over a number of his diplomatic and development political appointments to her. Rajiv Shah, the USAID administrator who served during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, was seen as a Clinton-approved pick.

If Clinton becomes president in 2017, she will likely preside over a U.S. foreign policy apparatus that is integrated under her vision as president. That could hint at a USAID administrator with closer ties to the White House than the State Department. As such, Clinton could be well placed to raise the administrator’s profile inside the administration, at least by involving that person more directly in National Security Council meetings.

“The only way to resist [the State Department’s] pressures is to have AID report to the president and have a seat on the National Security Council. If she wants to do something for development, that’s what she should do — not have the secretary of state acting as the AID administrator,” Natsios said.

Atwood wants to see the USAID administrator nominated quickly — far sooner than the year-plus it took to confirm Shah — and he hopes Clinton would elevate the USAID chief to a cabinet-level position.

“I strongly believe that USAID ought to be a cabinet agency and it ought to be managing the relationship with the World Bank … [and] with the voluntary agencies of the [United Nations] that do development,” Atwood said. Clinton’s USAID appointment would be a key marker of her ambition to undertake significant reforms, he added. “If she’s going to name a prominent individual who really has reform in mind that would be the first signal.”

Others see the specific individual she chooses and the expectations she holds for that person as a more significant indicator of Clinton’s commitment to USAID than any formal change to the job description. Clinton could nominate a “hugely empowered USAID administrator” without having to jump through the administrative and political hoops necessary to permanently alter the executive branch’s organizational chart, said Morris of CGD.

Regardless, if USAID is going to play at that higher level of national security, alongside the Department of Defense and State Department, the agency better make sure it’s prepared, said John Norris, executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

“You’ve gotta make sure you’ve got your act together and you’ve got a very capable aid administrator,” Norris said. That person should know how to “carve out and defend [USAID’s] own turf where it needs to, and also play nicely with others when it needs to. I think that’s more the challenge going forward,” Norris said.

Follow the momentum

Global development’s star player hangs up her jersey

Few U.S. secretaries of state have reached the iconic stature of Hillary Rodham Clinton. But will the push she gave to international development be enough to carry forward even after she leaves office? An analysis of Clinton’s legacy on foreign aid, based on interviews with her peers and former top aid officials, with admirers and critics.

As secretary of state, Clinton played a major role in ushering in some of the current administration’s biggest initiatives and in U.S. engagement with a development effectiveness agenda agreed to by many of the world’s donor governments. Clinton would be unlikely to introduce a major change of course, but would instead encourage U.S. development efforts to keep pace with transformations in the sector, according to people familiar with her priorities on U.S. development.

One reason to expect continuity is that the Obama administration has succeeded in passing legislation linking long-term strategies and resources to major development initiatives, increasing the likelihood that these will persist into the next administration. Feed the Future, Power Africa, and a commitment to aid transparency all enjoy congressional approval and the institutional support to see them through a presidential transition. Clinton would likely champion these initiatives anyway — particularly Feed the Future, which she was instrumental in creating. As president she would likely build on U.S. food security and nutrition programs, which appeal to bipartisan ideals of self-reliance and market-based solutions.

Global health would also likely remain a major emphasis. The U.S. global health budget is well-protected by earmarks and bipartisan-supported initiatives; and at a critical moment in the fight to reach an AIDS-free generation, supporters expect a consistent advocate in Clinton. Maternal and child health may be another central focus, fortified by congressional support for the “Reach Every Mother and Child Act” currently under consideration.

Clinton would also look to position U.S. development programs favorably with respect to broader trends, either directly or by appointing a forward-looking USAID chief. It is possible that her administration might see a concerted effort to engage more with innovative finance, perhaps even by consolidating some of the U.S. government’s finance agencies and offices — such as the Overseas Private Investment Corp., USAID’s Development Credit Authority, and the Export-Import Bank — into one development finance institution, an idea that has been proposed by U.S. development advisers but never attempted.

As secretary of state, Clinton supported Shah’s creation of the Global Development Lab, an entity inside the agency tasked with incorporating technology and innovation into U.S. development programs. (Clinton even presided over the Lab’s launch event after she had vacated her role as Secretary.) USAID has struggled to adapt its large, bureaucratic program cycles to a more innovative, technologically driven schedule. This is a challenge Clinton, or someone on her team, could take on.

Clinton’s past support for development effectiveness extended beyond USAID. When Atwood left the agency to become chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee, Clinton’s support followed. She attended a DAC development effectiveness summit in Busan, South Korea, delivered a speech, and used her State Department clout to encourage other countries’ ministers to attend, Atwood said.

The resulting Busan Partnership among aid donors agreed to respect developing countries’ ownership of development priorities, to focus on results, to build partnerships, and to improve transparency and accountability.

“It was the best attended conference of all of the effectiveness conferences, and what came out of that was a global partnership for effective development cooperation, and I think she deserves a lot of credit for the contributions she made to that as well,” Atwood said.

Grand strategist, or wonky change-maker?

In Philadelphia last week, Hillary Clinton’s indomitable work ethic frequently took center stage. Her colleagues and family members presented the candidate as a tireless “change-maker,” undaunted by failure and willing to put in the grunt work to usher incremental change through unglamorous policymaking channels.

That doggedness was evident when, as secretary of state, Clinton chaired the board of the Millennium Challenge Corp., the development agency created by George W. Bush to spur competition for American aid dollars among developing country partners. Clinton showed “tremendous knowledge on the full range of issues that affect developing countries as partners with the United States,” said Morris, who represented the U.S. Treasury on MCC’s board.

Clinton not only attended all the board meetings, Morris said — pointing out that you might expect a cabinet level official to delegate that responsibility — but she also waded into the details of “very wonky issues” like growth diagnostic exercises and country indicators. “It really was striking to anyone in the room how she navigated those meetings,” Morris said.

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at The Fletcher School, saw similar qualities in the “supporting role” Clinton played in negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan. As secretary of state, she persuaded the government of Sudan to accept a peacekeeping force for the disputed Abyei border area and then persuaded the President of South Sudan not to obstruct an African Union-formulated peace agreement. “In both cases she read the file and listened to the briefing; both were complex and detailed; and in both cases she did exactly what was asked of her by the AU and her own diplomats. Impressively professional,” de Waal wrote to Devex.

“On my experience I would expect her to continue with much the same focus as the current administration, and to entrust the development ... professionals to stick with their job, and support them,” he added, noting that Clinton’s decision of whether or not to retain Gayle Smith as USAID administrator will be one test of her faith in USAID’s personnel to know their job and “get on with it.”

Less certain is whether Clinton would strive to bring about some kind of comprehensive, transformational reform within the U.S. development system. Some skeptics see Clinton as a leader who supports incremental advances in the programs she inherits, without introducing bold new ideas.

“Other than the agriculture program, she increased existing programs,” Natsios said of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

The question of whether or not Clinton has the strategic vision and leadership to oversee a broader transformation of U.S. development programs might not be so urgent, if not for, as Natsios puts it, “a broad constellation of larger issues on the horizon that could affect the whole architecture of the international aid system.”

As countries question their multilateral obligations, and as a seven-decade old international system struggles to adapt to a changing landscape of wealth and poverty, incremental progress may no longer safeguard institutions against rapid and unpredictable change.

“I’m not sure Hillary is a grand strategist in that sense. I think her tendency is to take these existing programs and give more funding to them,” Natsios said.

On Nov. 8, American voters decide whether or not the U.S. development community will get a chance to find out.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of U.S. aid, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    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.