Win, lose, or draw: how US aid priorities fared in 2018

A set of flags of the United States of America. Photo by: Aurelien Guichard / CC BY-SA

WASHINGTON — If the president’s tweets are any indication, America has clearly entered a period of political winners and losers.

By all measures, 2018 was a tumultuous year for U.S. foreign aid programs and institutions. Once again, President Donald Trump’s administration took aim at global development programs in its budget request — and then doubled down on that position with an unprecedented attempt to retract money that had already been appropriated. At the same time, the U.S. Congress delivered a major — and bipartisan — victory for modernizing America’s development finance instruments; and the country’s largest single initiative received a renewed vote of confidence.

These ups and downs played out against the backdrop of a climate that is changing faster than anyone previously thought — and on the cusp of a new political dynamic in America as the Democratic party takes over the House of Representatives in January.

As 2018 draws to a close, these are the year’s U.S. foreign aid winners, losers — and something in between:

Winners

Development finance

With the passage of the Better Utilization for Investments Leading to Development — or BUILD — Act creating a new U.S. development finance corporation, U.S. development finance capabilities are entering the modern era.

The new agency, set to launch next year, will have equity authority, the ability to make local currency loans, a greater focus on low and lower-middle income countries, and more. The new institution is considered the biggest change in U.S. development policy in about 15 years, and the process to get there was an example of bipartisan cooperation in Congress and support from the Trump administration.

A combination of narratives — from countering China and national security objectives to building economic opportunities for U.S. businesses and greater government efficiency, along with a desire to improve development impact — enabled this significant shift in policy. Nearly two years ago, when the Overseas Private Investment Corp. was slated for elimination in Trump’s budget it might have made this list as a loser, so it’s been quite a turnaround for U.S. development finance.

The legislative branch

It may seem a bit odd to include Congress operating as it should as a winner, but in these contentious political times, legislators have still been able to come together to pass a number of development-related bills.

How policy wonks, politicos, and a conservative Republican remade US aid

The Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development, or BUILD Act, has been praised as an example of bipartisan cooperation in a fractious political era. Here's how the new U.S. development finance institution came to be.

Under the leadership of a pair of retiring chairmen, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee successfully pushed through significant legislation, including several bills reauthorizing existing programs. The Global Food Security Reauthorization Act, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Extension Act, the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Act Modernization Act, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act, and the aforementioned BUILD Act all passed.

The leadership of Rep. Ed Royce and Sen. Bob Corker, particularly in the last few years, was an era of successful development legislation marked by bipartisan cooperation and avoidance of overly politicizing of issues where it was possible. With new leadership and a divided Congress in the new year, it will be interesting to see if the legacy holds.

Faith-based organizations

The Trump administration has made little secret of its desire to see more of America’s assistance resources flow through faith-based organizations.

In the Middle East, the U.S. Agency for International Development has found itself under intense scrutiny by Vice President Mike Pence, who has reportedly felt that USAID has not done enough to support Christian minorities persecuted by the Islamic State in Iraq. Pence then directed USAID Administrator Mark Green to visit northern Iraq, as Green put it, “to meet with leaders of these suffering communities and report back with a plan of action to accelerate aid to those in greatest need.” Green’s visit — and repeated pledges to accelerate support to religious minorities — was not enough to prevent the reassignment and replacement of USAID’s senior deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau.

At the same time, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Amb. Deborah Birx, announced in July a commitment to direct 70 percent of money for PEPFAR through “indigenous” organizations. Birx announced that plan at the Christian Connections for International Health conference and made clear that a large part of her intention was to increase faith groups’ participation in PEPFAR programming.

Losers

Climate action

While the Paris Climate Agreement continues toward implementation in 2020, it does so without support — and often despite outright obstruction — from the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

While Trump has pledged to withdraw the U.S. from this nonbinding treaty, his State Department negotiators continue to participate in international climate negotiations as long as they still have a seat at the table — 2020, at the soonest. At COP24 in Katowice, Poland the U.S. joined with Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait to cast doubts about whether an alarming report from the International Panel on Climate Change detailing the impacts of warming should be “welcomed” into the proceedings. At the same conference, Trump’s political delegation hosted a side event about the role of fossil fuels — including coal — in combating climate change.

For middle- and low-income countries that are vulnerable to climate change, America’s refusal to contribute to key climate finance institutions — such as the Green Climate Fund — threatens to further erode the foundation of trust and cooperation that allows the Paris Agreement’s voluntary structure to function.

Syrian stabilization plans

President Trump shocked his own advisors on Wednesday when he announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. While military experts and lawmakers debate the ramifications of that decision for America’s effort to combat the Islamic State, humanitarian leaders fear it could put their assistance and stability operations at risk.

If the U.S. withdraws from northeast Syria, that could create the potential for conflict between Turkey and Kurdish forces — with humanitarian operations likely caught in the middle. There are also significant concerns that the Islamic State still poses a threat in the region and could resume its ruthless campaigns against the civilian populations who are already facing a massive rebuilding challenge.

Q&A: US troop withdrawal shifts risk to NGOs in Syria

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Joel Charny, executive director of Norwegian Refugee Council USA, spoke to Devex about what that could mean for humanitarian and stabilization efforts in the region.

“As a humanitarian agency, we insist that all decisions consider the impact on human lives. That there is no evidence this has been done in this case is of grave concern,” said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, in a statement.

Trump’s most recent announcement comes at the end of a year of mixed signals about America’s commitment to stabilizing Syria. After a trip to Syria in January, Administrator Green repeatedly joined with military leaders to describe a long road ahead, which would require alignment and cooperation between U.S. military and civilian actors. Even as the leaders tasked with coordinating this challenge described their joint commitment, Trump said he had little interest in maintaining a U.S. presence, before ultimately freezing $200 million in U.S. stabilization funding.

Draw

PEPFAR

The U.S. government’s flagship global HIV program celebrated a tumultuous 15th anniversary in 2018.

On one hand, PEPFAR maintained enough support among bipartisan lawmakers to protect most of its budget from the Trump administration’s proposal to make deep cuts. Earlier this month, Trump signed a bill to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years, securing the initiative’s place in U.S. global health programs — at the same time he takes aim at its budget. PEPFAR has garnered support from some of the highest-level figures in the administration — in particular, Pence, who lauded the reauthorization and described an “extraordinary humanitarian effort by the American people.”

U.S. global health insiders, on the other hand, have received clear signals that the administration’s next budget request is likely to include an even bigger cut. Jan. 23 will mark the two-year anniversary of Trump’s expansion of the global gag rule, a policy some say has created confusion and chaos in reproductive health programs.

Millennium Challenge Corp. 

While MCC did get additional authorities that the agency had wanted for years in 2018, the year was largely marked by leadership turmoil. With the AGOA and MCA Modernization Act, MCC now has the ability to do concurrent compacts and regional compacts, and the board approved a group of five West African countries as eligible for the first regional compact earlier this month.

However, despite Congressional support, and apparent support in the administration for the agency, its leadership challenges have meant a lower profile for the agency and tension within, including the ousting of some staff. The administration early this year nominated Sean Cairncross for the MCC leadership post and despite making it through committee his approval has languished with some senators objecting. In the meantime, a number of appointed leaders have come and gone with both Robert Blau and then Brock Bierman serving short stints in the top job. Jonathan Nash, the agency’s COO, is now once again the acting head of the agency. Many agency supporters say the most important thing for its future is a Senate-confirmed leader.

About the authors

  • 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.
  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor 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.