Will Foreign Aid Get Cut on Trump’s Chopping Block?
USAID is in the dark on Trump's plans, but Republicans in Congress could be the main defenders of foreign assistance.
Anxious humanitarian organizations are worried that President-elect Donald Trump, who sharply questioned the value of foreign aid during his campaign, is poised to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance for developing countries — including programs promoting democracy, family planning, LGBT rights and efforts to address climate change.
Aid workers say many of the plans will come under close scrutiny and possibly be scrapped altogether. But the future of the nearly $34 billion annual budget proposed for foreign assistance next year remains a mystery after a campaign in which Trump made contradictory and vague comments about the role of international aid programs.
Reinforcing the uncertainty, Trump’s transition team has so far failed to reach out to the U.S. Agency for International Development — the government body that oversees the delivery of most foreign aid — more than two weeks since the election.
A USAID official told Foreign Policy that the aid agency “has not been contacted by the office of the president-elect” even though “we have appointed a team of USAID career staff to ensure this is done smoothly.”
“Ensuring an orderly transition is a top priority for USAID,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Incoming administrations typically have a team ready to take over at USAID with detailed policy plans and lists of prospective appointees. But so far there has been no sign of that kind of preparation from Trump’s associates, administration officials said.
The president-elect’s transition representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The United States is the biggest foreign aid donor in the world, representing about 24 percent of development assistance from major governments in 2014. Washington’s decisions on foreign assistance have a far-reaching effect that influences how much other other governments are willing to contribute to development projects around the world aimed at reducing poverty, promoting public health, bolstering stability, and countering terrorism.
Aid groups hope Republicans in Congress will ultimately protect the $37.9 billion the Obama administration allocated to foreign assistance — a fraction of the $4 trillion 2016 federal budget. But the silence from the Trump camp, which has yet to name a nominee for secretary of state, has unnerved some development experts who are waiting to see whether the next president will make good on some of his more strident “America First” rhetoric.
As a candidate, Trump sent mixed messages on foreign assistance. He has said, albeit vaguely, that he broadly supports the idea of development aid. But he’s also suggested it’s time to slash aid in favor of spending on priorities at home.
In his June 2015 speech announcing his candidacy, Trump said the United States should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” and to spend the funds to “invest in our infrastructure … our tunnels, roads, bridges, and schools.” In August, he said he would end “our current strategy of nation-building” abroad.
However, in a foreign-policy address in April, Trump seemed to reverse himself. America, he said, will “continue forever to play the role of peacemaker. We will always help save lives and indeed, humanity itself. … We are a humanitarian nation.”
In an interview that month with Fox News, the former reality television star embraced the rationale for U.S. assistance over the past decade and a half.
“If we don’t help” countries facing disasters, Trump said then, “bigger problems” would be created. In that same appearance, he said the United States needed to continue to give aid to countries such as Pakistan because “we don’t want to see total instability” there. For nations struggling with poverty, Trump said he would “try to keep some of these countries going.”
He has criticized U.S. funding for efforts to combat climate change while saying the United States should invest in helping provide clean water to poor populations and fighting diseases such as malaria.
Whatever Trump’s intentions, aid experts said his transition team needed to make contact with USAID as soon as possible to set the agency’s agenda and leadership for the next administration. Gayle Smith, the current USAID chief, is expected to step down, as is customary in a new administration.
“There are a tremendous amount of technical details that must be ironed out with the new team,” said Ryan Greer, CEO of Vasa Strategies, a consultancy focusing on countering violent extremism abroad. He said U.S. national security and foreign-policy experts “are eager to see the transition team move the process forward.”
Other development experts say there’s time for Trump to get off on the right foot with the aid community. “We think it’s not that unusual that transition officials haven’t met with USAID when you compare to past administrations,” said Madeline Rose, senior policy advisor at Mercy Corps.
Development organizations that receive funding and advise the U.S. government on foreign assistance had assumed — and perhaps banked on — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would win the election as polls predicted. But Trump’s victory shocked aid groups and raised fears of a potential major disruption in funding levels and priorities for foreign assistance.
John Simpkins, who was USAID’s general counsel until last month, told the Devex website that the future of family planning initiatives, LBGT support programs, and democracy promotion efforts could be jeopardized in a Trump administration.
But other U.S. officials and experts said it was too early to make any firm predictions — and that congressional Republicans would come to the rescue if necessary. They said the need to counter Islamist extremists and to prevent the outbreak of epidemics could temper any bid by the next administration to jettison major elements of the foreign-assistance budget.
“Some of the biggest champions of effective foreign assistance are key Republicans on Capitol Hill,” said Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign.
Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said evangelical Christians and other elements of the GOP have championed foreign aid, and he doesn’t expect that to change under a Trump presidency.
“There is a longstanding Republican tradition of GOP support for certain areas of public health,” Moss said. “Capitol Hill has been pretty clear that they would like it to be more effective, but they see it as a critical tool for the U.S. around the world.”
Despite a deeply polarized and often dysfunctional atmosphere in Washington, lawmakers from both parties have managed to find common ground on foreign aid programs, said Liz Schrayer of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which promotes international assistance.
“In the last 18 months, six pieces of bipartisan global development legislation have been passed,” said Schrayer, including backing for water projects, electricity for African states, global food security initiatives, transparency in aid, and women’s education efforts.
“There is real bipartisan support for … global development, diplomacy, and foreign assistance,” she said.
During his time on the House Foreign Affairs committee, Vice President-elect Mike Pence pushed for U.S. programs to help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. He said in 2008 that the United States had a “moral obligation to lead the world in confronting the pandemics of HIV/AIDS.”
The Republican view of foreign aid has undergone a sea change since the 1990s, when members of the party voiced deep skepticism about international development assistance. The 9/11 attacks led conservative lawmakers to take a second look at aid as a tool of diplomacy and bolstering national security. Then-President George W. Bush’s push to reform the way aid was delivered won converts inside the party.
Republican lawmakers tend to support the view that foreign aid contributes to the national security of the United States, something Trump has made a top priority. The 2016 Republican convention platform says, “International assistance is a critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests by preventing conflict, building stability, opening markets for private investment, and responding to suffering and need with the compassion that is at the heart of our country’s values.”
It specifically praises the Millennium Challenge Corp., created under Bush, to hand out aid when countries meet certain economic and political benchmarks.
But the Republican Party platform also accuses the Obama administration of imposing a “radical social agenda” on some African countries, an apparent reference to support for LGBT rights and family planning programs. In 2014, about 20 percent of U.S. foreign assistance went to African nations.
Even if Trump embraces a more bipartisan approach to foreign assistance, most aid experts and congressional staffers expect his administration will try to cut, or even eliminate, funding for a host of programs. They include efforts to combat climate change, which Trump has called a hoax orchestrated by China, and projects related to contraception, family planning, women’s reproductive health, and LGBT communities.
Some parts of Obama’s legacy on foreign assistance enjoy bipartisan support and are likely to remain in place, including programs to help provide electricity to African countries and to alleviate hunger in developing nations. But given Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate and the stance of Republican lawmakers, experts say funding for initiatives related to climate change probably will be on the chopping block under the next administration.
The Obama administration has delivered $500 million as part of a promised U.S. contribution of $3 billion for a Green Climate Fund that is designed to pool funds from rich countries to help poorer states develop clean technologies and adapt to the effects of climate change. But a Trump administration could rescind that pledge.
“I think that’s over,” said Daniel Runde of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A withdrawal by Washington from the Green Climate Fund could have damaging influence on other governments, said Yeo, of the Better World Campaign.
“If the U.S. failed to contribute financially to these efforts, it could very well undermine the willingness of other countries to participate” in the Paris climate agreement that was ratified earlier this month, he said.
However, Trump’s stance on climate change appeared to soften on Tuesday when he indicated to the New York Times that there was at least “some” connection between human activity and global warming. His comment was the latest in which the president-elect has appeared to renounce or pull back from more strident positions he adopted during the campaign, including a vow to build a wall along the Mexican border and to employ waterboarding against terror suspects.
Apart from aid programs linked to climate change, Runde said it’s possible Trump will bring a renewed commitment to some important development problems.
“The development community should keep an open mind, because President-elect Trump could shift our assistance to respond better to a series of pressing issues that deserve more attention,” he said, citing the global refugee crisis and efforts to prevent pandemics.
Yeo said the most pressing problem facing the next head of USAID will be the unprecedented global refugee crisis triggered by the war in Syria.
“There are millions of refugees and displaced people still not getting the assistance they need,” he said.
As of September, the U.S. government has spent $4.5 billion since the start of the refugee crisis there in 2011. Much of that funding has gone directly to U.N. programs and not through USAID.
Colum Lynch contributed to this article
Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images
David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson
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