Where they stand: Democrats and Republicans on U.S. foreign aid

Rivals for the U.S. presidency: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Obama photo by: The U.S. Army; Romney photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-NC-SA

Fresh off their party conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have begun their final sprint to election day on November 6. Even as pocketbook concerns continue to overshadow foreign policy issues on the campaign trail, in both Charlotte and Tampa, top-billed speakers made the case for the U.S. foreign aid program.

“I have to be grateful – and you should be, too – that President George W. Bush supported [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. It saved the lives of millions of people in poor countries,” asserted former President Bill Clinton as he nominated Obama for a second term.

At the Republican convention the week before, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice echoed these sentiments.

“It has been hard to muster the resources to support fledgling democracies– or to help the world’s most desperate … Yet this assistance – together with the compassionate works of private charities – people of conscience and people of faith – has shown the soul of our country,” said Rice in a primetime address.

Top Romney adviser Vin Weber told Devex last week that the GOP presidential nominee is broadly supportive of the U.S. aid program. His running mate Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, had previously proposed sweeping cuts to U.S. international affairs spending in his budget, raising concerns among the U.S. development community over the future of the U.S. aid program in a Republican administration.

The broad, bipartisan consensus for U.S. foreign assistance, which first emerged under President George W. Bush, could very well hold regardless of the outcome of November’s election. Yet while many Democrats and Republicans continue to find common ground on the strategic and moral imperatives of U.S. foreign assistance, there are stark differences in official party positions on the direction of the U.S. aid program (see graphic at the end of this article).

Core principles

In their 2012 platform, Republicans contend that foreign assistance should be seen as an alternative means of keeping the peace, less costly than military engagement. But the document also argues that most official development assistance is based on an “outdated statist, government-to-government model” that breeds corruption and mismanagement.

In line with the Ryan budget, this year’s GOP platform makes the case that U.S. foreign aid should serve U.S. national interests and also be based on the principles of the Millennium Challenge Corp. The MCC, a Bush administration initiative which has since been adopted by Obama, only disburses aid to countries which demonstrate a commitment to good governance, economic openness, and social sector investment. In 2008, when Republicans nominated John McCain for president, their platform pledged to better target aid to achieve high-impact goals without calling for a major overhaul of the U.S. foreign aid model.

Meanwhile, as in 2008, Democrats argue in their 2012 platform that promoting global development remains in the U.S. national interest. The MCC earns no mention in this year’s Democratic platform.

In a document that largely reads like a dossier of past accomplishments, the 2012 Democratic platform has dropped a commitment from 2008 to modernize the U.S. foreign aid program through an “an elevated, empowered, consolidated, and streamlined U.S. development agency.” In July, the Obama administration reversed plans to transition the Global Health Initiative from the State Department to the U.S. Agency for International Development, a move which some analysts fear could derail efforts to strengthen USAID’s position as the premier U.S. aid agency. Launched in May 2009, GHI aims to foster country ownership, strategic coordination and integration across U.S. global health programming.

Funding levels

As in 2008, the 2012 GOP platform steers clear of putting a dollar amount on U.S. foreign assistance levels in a Republican administration. But the document does reaffirm Romney’s commitment to restrain spending on U.S. aid programs. 

“Limiting foreign aid spending helps keep taxes lower, which frees more resources in the private and charitable sectors, whose giving tends to be more effective and efficient,” reads the 2012 Republican platform.

In their 2012 platform, Democrats likewise refrain from offering specifics on U.S. aid spending levels in a second Obama term. The administration’s long-term spending plan would increase U.S. international affairs spending every year through 2022 except 2014.

In 2008, mirroring a commitment first made by Obama a year before, the Democratic platform had pledged to double core U.S. foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012. Following the financial meltdown in September 2008, the Obama campaign conceded that the $50 billion target would likely have to be postponed. Core U.S. foreign aid levels now stand at $36 billion, well below Obama’s initial pledge but up 34 percent from fiscal 2008.

Global health

Both political party platforms call attention to the accomplishments of PEPFAR, which marks its 10th anniversary next year. The 2012 Republican platform asserts that PEPFAR is “one of the most successful global health programs in history” and suggests that the initiative will be the cornerstone of U.S. foreign aid to Africa in a Romney administration. The Democratic platform states that Obama remains committed to robust funding for PEPFAR, which like the MCC was first initiated by the Bush administration.

Yet while the Democratic platform makes clear that PEPFAR is part of a larger commitment to combat infectious diseases, this year’s Republican platform is mostly silent on the U.S. role in addressing broader health challenges. In 2012, both platforms do express support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a multilateral financing facility where the United States has historically been the leading donor.

In keeping with the party’s longstanding position, the 2012 Republican platform pledges to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, which restricts USAID funding for foreign nongovernmental organizations that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning. This year’s GOP platform also indicates that a Romney administration would follow his Republican predecessors in suspending U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund. Republicans charge that the UNFPA backs coercive family planning practices in China.

The 2012 Democratic platform meanwhile praises Obama for rescinding the global gag rule – a long-running party stance – within days of taking office in January 2009.

“President Obama and the Democratic Party are committed to supporting family planning around the globe to help women care for their families, support their communities, and lead their countries to be healthier and more productive,” states the document.

Food security

In their 2012 platforms, both Democrats and Republicans salute American farmers for contributing to U.S. food aid efforts around the world. Only Democrats, however, argue that fighting global hunger will also require supporting agricultural development in host countries. The 2012 Democratic platform points to the administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which aims to reorient the U.S. food security strategy towards agricultural development, as a step forward in “building the capacity of nations to feed themselves.” The Ryan budget had previously called for eliminating Feed the Future.

The 2012 Democratic platform also calls the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a recently announced partnership between G-8 nations, African countries and the private sector, the “next phase” in global food security efforts. The new initiative emphasizes the private sector’s role in reducing hunger across the African continent.

This year’s Republican platform does commit to streamlining U.S. food aid programming currently implemented by both USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture under one agency. Four years ago, Republicans had identified agricultural development as a core U.S. aid program in their party platform even as Democrats gave little indication of their food security agenda.

Climate change

In 2008, the Republican platform argued, “Because the issue of climate change is global, it must become a truly global concern as well.” The platform called on all developed and developing countries to make significant contributions to the global response to climate change, adding that the U.S. could not be expected to carry burdens “which are more appropriately shared by all.”

In one of the Republican platform’s most dramatic shifts from 2008, this year’s document now rebukes Obama for elevating climate change to the U.S. defense agenda in his 2010 national security strategy. The 2012 GOP platform also scraps the party’s endorsement of a global response to climate change. Drawing a contrast with Obama, in his Tampa speech, Romney seemed to go out of his way to stress that climate change would be far from the top of his agenda as president.

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family,” said Romney to thunderous applause.

Meanwhile, the 2012 Democratic platform continues to commit to a U.S. role in mobilizing financing to help developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change and invest in clean energy technology. In September 2010, Obama rolled out the Global Climate Change Initiative, which supports programming related to climate change adaptation, clean energy technologies and the reduction of greenhouse gases through sustainable landscapes. The Ryan budget had previously called for eliminating U.S. contributions to World Bank-administered climate investment funds, which constitute 31 percent of the Obama administration’s $770 million request for GCCI in fiscal 2013.

Gay rights

In December 2011, Obama instructed U.S. aid agencies to consider host countries’ treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in determining support to these countries. The president’s historic directive followed the Ugandan parliament’s reopening of debate on a controversial bill that would make some homosexual acts a crime punishable by death. Uganda is among the 10 largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance in sub-Saharan Africa.

The 2012 Democratic platform praises the administration’s drive to promote gay rights worldwide. The document highlights the State Department’s role in these efforts, including its financial support for gay rights organizations to combat discrimination, violence, and other abuses.

This year’s Republican platform, on the other hand, comes out swinging against the president’s elevation of gay rights to the U.S. foreign aid agenda. The document contends that the administration’s stance on social issues has cast a cloud over the continued involvement of faith-based groups in U.S. foreign assistance programming, blunting the overall effectiveness of the U.S. aid regime.

“The effectiveness of our foreign aid has been limited by the cultural agenda of the current Administration, attempting to impose on foreign countries, especially the peoples of Africa, legalized abortion and the homosexual rights agenda,” the 2012 GOP platform reads.

Neither the 2008 Republican platform nor the Democratic platform contained references to gay rights in the context of U.S. foreign aid programming.

Photo credits: President Barack Obama: Shannon Donahue; Mitt Romney: Gage Skidmore

About the author

  • Lorenzo Piccio

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