U.S. Stopped Vital Foreign Aid Programs in the Name of Counter-Trafficking

Money that could have been used to curtail the Ebola outbreak in Central Africa or support demining programs in Southeast Asia was held up over human trafficking complaints.

Foreign Policy illustration
Foreign Policy Illustration

For over six months, the Trump administration’s drive to clamp down on human trafficking has quietly wreaked havoc on $700 million of important U.S.-funded aid programs around the developing world, including money that could have helped alleviate the new Ebola outbreak in Central Africa. 

The stoppage in funding appeared to occur haphazardly following the publication of an op-ed by Ivanka Trump, U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior White House advisor, according to aid workers and U.S. officials. The Nov. 29, 2018, article in the Washington Post praised the Trump administration’s “bold action” to combat human trafficking and limit aid to countries that don’t do enough to address it. The White House also released a memorandum that day to restrict nonhumanitarian, nontrade aid to nearly 20 countries seen as falling short. 

“Everybody sees this op-ed, nobody knows, even people in the administration they don’t know, and then there’s no guidance,” said one aid worker in regular contact with the State Department, who declined to speak on record.

“For months after, there was just radio silence” from the State Department on what programs should be cut or not, said one congressional aide. 

Until very recently, the administration issued little and in some cases no guidance on exactly what programs should face funding cuts under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), leaving in limbo critical projects on demining former war zones, combating the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and even countering human trafficking themselves.

The Ebola crisis in Congo, now considered one of the most complicated health crises in modern history, has killed over 1,500 people and shows no signs of abating. A State Department spokesperson denied that most U.S. assistance funds had been affected, saying the “vast majority of our Ebola response aimed at addressing the current outbreak and preventing the spread of Ebola is disaster relief assistance not subject to TVPA restrictions.”

But one U.S. official involved in internal deliberations, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed that and said multiple programs on Ebola were held up for months, and waivers to restart the projects were only issued in recent weeks. “The Ebola negligence is far more disastrous and unacceptable,” the official said.

Humanitarian groups and civil society organizations have been marooned for months without direction from the State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development on which programs they can continue implementing and which ones they can’t. By doing so, critics say, the Trump administration is undercutting its own efforts to combat human trafficking.

Facing mounting pressure from lawmakers and humanitarian organizations, the State Department and USAID finally began easing restrictions on funding for aid programs within the past several weeks. Aid workers and former U.S. officials say it shouldn’t have taken that long, and even now there is uncertainty over how the government is assessing which projects can continue. 

“Defunding the programs that protect vulnerable people’s human rights and meet their basic needs is a nonsensical approach to combating trafficking,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, the executive director of the Solidarity Center, a global workers rights organization that operates in 60 countries and has been affected by the Trump administration’s decisions. 

Bader-Blau said USAID notified her organization it could no longer carry out work in Myanmar focused on migrant worker rights and safety—work that would address labor trafficking—and “informally indicated” programs in two other countries could be affected. She said the Solidarity Center works with civil society groups and does not provide any direct assistance to the Myanmar government.

Some critics blame bureaucratic incompetence and a lack of direction from top leadership in the State Department and USAID. Others see it as a more calculated way for the Trump administration to choke off foreign aid funding after past efforts to trim such aid from the federal budget were rebuffed by Congress. 

“It definitely feels like both,” Bader-Blau said.

The confusion centers on the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, a global assessment of countries around the world, tackles human trafficking, including sex and labor trafficking. Countries are organized into “tiers” based whether or not they meet minimum standards to address human trafficking, as outlined in the TVPA law: “Tier 1” countries meet minimum standards; “Tier 2” countries do not but are taking tangible steps to improve; “Tier 2 Watch List” countries have either not done enough to address trafficking or have seen increased rates of human trafficking; and “Tier 3” countries are those where trafficking is prevalent and countries aren’t doing enough to address it. Those designated “Tier 3”—including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and South Sudan—face losing nonhumanitarian and nontrade U.S. aid that directly benefits the governments in question.

The TIP Report “has been an incredibly valuable tool” for U.S. foreign policy, said Judith Kelley, the dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, who has studied the global impact of the report. “It is all the way up to heads of state that get worked up about these rankings,” she said, giving embassies and nongovernmental organizations substantial sway in their talks with foreign governments on countering trafficking. 

Under past administrations, the U.S. government has always issued waivers for programs in Tier 3 countries that directly assist people in need, such as childhood education programs and training for local health clinics in underdeveloped countries. This year, the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of waivers, forcing aid groups to either halt or even shut down their programming. The issues regarding TIP waivers were first reported by the global development website Devex in May.

The Trump administration’s approach has left aid organizations—and even some U.S. officials involved in the deliberations—fuming as they watch important aid projects stall in the name of countering human trafficking. 

“The Trump administration’s foreign policy development process is notoriously dysfunctional. So it’s often hard to discern whether a problem like this is a feature or a bug,” said Rob Berschinski, a former State Department official under the Obama administration now with the advocacy organization Human Rights First. “In either case, the problems identified would seem to be easily rectified with clear guidance defining what constitutes ‘humanitarian’ aid, or simple waivers issued by the president.”      

The saga began when Ivanka Trump, in her op-ed, announced the administration would “limit” the number of waivers given to Tier 3 countries. Foreign Policy spoke to six aid organizations and U.S. officials, all of whom said her op-ed was the first time they heard of this policy change to limit the number of waivers, catching them off guard and giving them little time to prepare to draw down their programs.

On the same day as his daughter’s op-ed, Trump issued a memorandum directing the State Department to cut non-humanitarian aid to 18 labeled Tier 3: Belarus, Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Burundi, China, Comoros, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Laos, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela.

After the op-ed and memorandum, aid workers say they received almost no guidance on what programs they could continue in those countries despite repeated outreach to the State Department and USAID.

Based on interviews with nearly a dozen U.S. officials, congressional aides, and aid organization representatives, programs that were left in limbo include: assistance on the deadly spread of Ebola, demining programs in Laos to remove Vietnam War-era mines, early childhood education programs in Myanmar that are designed in part to combat the trafficking of children, and programs to support peacekeeping and monitoring in South Sudan.

Two congressional aides said requests to the State Department to provide a full and exhaustive list of what programs were impacted went ignored. 

A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy the president “provided fewer waivers than in recent years” and the State Department and USAID have done a review “in a way that balances our need to hold those governments accountable and incentivize progress on combating human trafficking with other Administration priorities.”

Congressional aides say the State Department finally agreed to lift some restrictions on aid, including aid related to combating Ebola, in recent weeks—just as the department rolled out the 2019 TIP Report on June 20. 

“I honestly have no idea why it took them that long,” vented one Republican congressional aide. 

Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Ebola Eradication Act last month in an effort to undo these restrictions.

“It is unacceptable that the lack of clarity from the White House on which activities should be restricted due to TIP sanctions is preventing USAID from executing a strategy that would help save lives in DRC, and prevent this outbreak from becoming a massive epidemic,” he said in a statement at the time. 

The State Department spokesperson appeared to hint that a course correction was underway. “Decisions to continue some urgent, life-saving assistance were made several months ago. Decisions to continue assistance related to other Administration policy priorities were made more recently. USAID and the State Department are working expeditiously to implement these decisions,” the State Department spokesperson said. 

Aid workers and congressional aides say they’re not out of the woods yet, as at least some of the $700 million worth of aid programs are still being held up. “There are concerns that it is still effectively being approved piecemeal, or activity by activity,” a Democratic congressional aide said. 

In the meantime, “a lot of [NGOs] are trying to fund programs in the meantime with their own money and limp along in hopes that eventually the money will get unfrozen,” the aide said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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