Where they stand: Democrats and Republicans on global development

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee for U.S. president in the 2016 election. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

In just under 90 days, Americans will head to the polls to elect a new president. While the contest thus far has been one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, Democrat Hillary Clinton currently holds a sizable lead over Republican Donald Trump in the opinion polls.

The winner of November’s election will succeed Barack Obama after his eight years in office and inherit what most analysts consider to be an impressive, if mixed, development legacy. Feed the Future, USAID Forward and Power Africa are widely viewed as game-changing development initiatives of the Obama administration, even as its efforts to streamline the U.S. global health regime and reform the way the U.S. delivers food aid seem to have fallen short.

How might either a Clinton or Trump administration take the ball forward on global development? Devex examined the official Democratic and Republican party platforms to find out. As might be expected, our analysis of the platforms reveals glaring differences in official party positions on the direction of the U.S. global development agenda (see graphic at the end of this article).

Foreign aid

In lockstep with Clinton’s long-standing and well-known commitment to the U.S. foreign aid program, the 2016 Democratic platform makes the case that U.S. development assistance is both a strategic and humanitarian imperative for the United States. The document also hinted that a Clinton administration would readopt Obama’s “extreme poverty agenda” and its lofty goal of eliminating extreme poverty across the globe within a generation.

“Development assistance is an essential instrument of American power,” reads the 2016 Democratic platform. “We need to continue this work and make more progress on important global goals like ending extreme poverty and hunger.”

The 2016 Democratic platform also stresses that U.S. foreign aid must support local development efforts by assisting countries to “direct their own futures” — an early indication that a Clinton administration would stay the course on the U.S. Agency for International Development aid localization drive called Local Solutions.

Sounding much like its Democratic counterpart, the 2016 Republican platform calls U.S. foreign aid a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests.” At the same time, however, the document adds that U.S. foreign aid must serve U.S. interests first, an apparent nod to Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.”

As was the case in the 2012 Republican platform, the 2016 version of the document calls for the next administration to embrace the Millennium Challenge Corp.’s performance-based aid model across the U.S. foreign aid program. Despite the agency’s reputation as an aid effectiveness leader, MCC’s annual budget has stagnated at $900 million since it was established over a decade ago, remaining far below USAID’s roughly $20 billion annual budget.

Global health

Commanding an outsized share of the U.S. foreign aid budget, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief draws praise from both the 2016 Democratic and Republican platforms. Initially a Bush administration initiative like MCC, PEPFAR is widely credited with helping stem the tide of the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.

Going further than the 2016 Republican platform which only indicated a recommitment to PEPFAR, the 2016 Democratic platform pledges an increase in U.S. funding for HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment programming worldwide. By comparison, the 2012 Democratic platform had only committed to “robust funding” for PEPFAR.

Even as the 2016 Republican platform commended both PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — the latter being one of the few multilateral organizations to garner positive recognition from the GOP — the document is mum on the U.S. role in addressing broader health challenges. Only the 2016 Democratic platform commits to continued U.S. investments in the areas of maternal and child health, tuberculosis, malaria as well as pandemic preparedness.

In a shift from the 2012 Democratic platform, the 2016 version of the document now explicitly makes the case that “safe abortion,” in addition to affordable family planning information and contraceptive supplies, must be included in the United States’ maternal and child health assistance programming. As expected, the document reaffirms the party’s long-standing opposition to the Mexico City Policy, otherwise known as the global gag rule, which restricts USAID funding for foreign nongovernmental organizations that either offer abortions or provide information about abortion. Obama rescinded that policy shortly after taking office in January 2009.

On the other hand, the 2016 Republican platform promises to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, as has been the practice of previous Republican administrations.

Climate change

Calling climate change “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” the 2016 Democratic platform pledges renewed U.S. leadership in the fight against climate change. The document stresses that the United States will continue to support developing countries’ efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change — a key commitment of the historic Paris climate agreement signed late last year which aims to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius.

Under Obama, the United States has contributed the single largest amount ($3 billion) to the Green Climate Fund, the multilateral financing entity which is designed to channel a significant share of climate finance to developing countries.

Echoing Trump’s skepticism toward climate change, the 2016 Republican platform, in stark contrast, asserts that “climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.” A close reading of the platform reveals that its policy stances on climate change, if implemented, would represent some of the most concrete departures from the Obama administration’s global development policy.

The 2016 Republican platform asserts that a future administration would not be bound by the Paris climate agreement because it has never been ratified by the U.S. Senate. Accordingly, the Republican platform promises to reverse course on Obama’s restrictive posture towards coal, an early indication that a Trump administration could resume U.S. support for multilateral financing of coal-fired power plants.

At the same time, the document calls for an immediate halt to U.S. financing for the Green Climate Fund. The Republican platform alleges that U.S. contributions to the fund violate U.S. law which prohibits U.S. support for U.N. agencies which grant membership to the Palestinian territories and other territories which are not internationally recognized as sovereign states. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the U.N. agency which oversees the Green Climate Fund, admitted the Palestinian territories as its newest member in March of this year.

Refugee assistance

The 2016 Democratic platform pledges U.S. leadership in providing “greater” humanitarian assistance to refugees displaced by conflict in Syria and Iraq. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria five years ago, the Obama administration has provided over $5.1 billion in humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees, making the United States, by far, the biggest donor to relief operations there.

Looking beyond Syria and Iraq, the Democratic platform backs collective action by the international community in response to the global refugee crisis and reiterated Obama’s recent call for a high-level summit to address the plight of refugees worldwide. Such a summit is scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September.

The 2016 Republican platform meanwhile reaffirms Trump’s signature policy stance that the United States must not admit refugees without proper and stricter vetting — a position which most independent fact-checkers have found to be questionable because the Obama administration already does have a stringent vetting system for refugees. It’s worth noting that the Democratic platform commits to ensuring that this vetting system remains in place.

The Republican platform further argues that the United States should bolster its aid for religious and ethnic minorities displaced by the onslaught of the Islamic State group in Iraq, even while it is silent on the plight of refugees elsewhere on the globe.

“Defeating [the Islamic State group] means more than pushing back its fighters while abandoning its victims,” reads the document. “It means supporting the long-term survival of indigenous religious and ethnic communities.”

LGBT rights

Much like the 2012 Democratic platform, the 2016 version of the document praises Obama’s December 2011 directive which instructed U.S. aid agencies to provide assistance in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and, at the same time, consider host countries’ treatment of LGBT people in determining aid allocations to these countries. According to the New York Times, the U.S. government has spent more than $41 million to support LGBT rights globally since 2012.

While the 2016 Republican platform does pledge that a Republican administration would integrate human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of its bilateral engagement, the document gives no indication that the party considers LGBT rights as a human rights issue.

As was the case four years ago, this year’s version of the Republican platform repudiates Obama’s elevation of LGBT rights in U.S. development policy. The platform contends that, in doing so, Obama has undermined the prospects for the U.S. foreign aid program’s continued engagement with faith-based groups.

“The integrity of our country’s foreign assistance program has been compromised by the current administration’s attempt to impose on foreign recipients, especially the peoples of Africa, its own radical social agenda,” reads the 2016 Republican platform.

Obama had signed the December 2011 directive just as Uganda and several other African countries were considering highly controversial anti-gay laws. Despite strong objections from the United States, one of Uganda’s major aid donors, the law entered into force in early 2014, but was struck down by Uganda’s constitutional court later that year.

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About the author

  • Piccio

    Lorenzo Piccio

    Lorenzo is a former contributing analyst for Devex. Previously Devex's senior analyst for development finance in Manila.