Foreign Aid Won’t End Under Trump—Here’s How to Make It Better

Foreign Aid probably won’t disappear under Trump. But it is possible to redirect it and make it more effective in serving our interests while actually helping those who need it.

What will be the role for international development assistance and aid in the Trump Administration? Although the Trump transition team has yet to announce nominations for important development-related positions, it is possible to get a sense of Trump’s priorities here by looking at the campaign’s objectives and appointments in other areas.

First, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will change, but it is unlikely to disappear, or to be folded into the State Department. There remains bipartisan support for development assistance in Congress, and aid policy can still be understood as a useful tool for the sort of soft power diplomacy favored by the president-elect. Since the incoming administration doesn’t view the State Department bureaucracy as particularly loyal, it is unlikely to be entrusted with the high-profile foreign aid portfolio.

In selecting a new USAID administrator, the transition team is likely to look beyond Bush-era retreads and the D.C.-based development establishment, which generally supported the NeverTrump wing of the Republican party, and select either a sympathetic philanthropist, or the CEO of the large faith–based development Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like World Vision, or Catholic Relief Services. USAID itself is likely to shrink, possibly primarily through attrition, and there is a possibility the agency will be moved out of the “swamp” (along with other agencies), to a less developed part of the United States (perhaps Detroit or Mississippi).

To highlight the new administration’s change in direction on policies and priorities, some funding and programs will be cut early, but overall funding for international assistance probably will not shrink much in the longer term. Nevertheless, shifts in priorities will create winners and losers within the development community.

Support for multilateral institutions, and particularly the United Nations, will decrease for both practical and ideological reasons. Financial support to agencies like United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which are generally viewed in the development community as bloated, ineffective, and often corrupt, will be cut; but the funding probably will not be lost. Rather, it seems likely that the funding will be shifted to U.S. and international charities that are viewed as more effective than the United Nations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross, World Vision, or CARE.

Climate change programs likely will be cut substantially or completely, but other environment programs will survive, perhaps even thrive, but with greater emphasis on adaptation to human development needs. Humanitarian relief activities will continue unabated, but one suspects primarily through NGOs rather than through multilateral institutions. Refugee assistance will actually increase, but more will be directed at the establishment of “safe zones” near the conflict, rather than resettlement.

Effective health and medical programs (except family planning) will grow, as they have in previous Republican administrations. Business-friendly programs that aim to improve the business environment, increase transparency and reduce corruption will also get a big boost, and there is likely to be increased focus on investment-led development, and market-based solutions to development problems.

Given Ivanka Trump’s clearly stated interest in supporting women’s issues domestically, it seems likely that support for international women’s rights and political empowerment programs will also increase substantially in the new administration. The new administration’s lack of respect for political correctness or diplomatic niceties suggest that it is also possible there may be increased willingness to call out and shame the world’s worst abusers of women; those engaged in political and social oppression, sex-selection abortion, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and acid attacks.

My own field, democratic development, is likely to shrink considerably in a Trump administration, as we shift from the ineffective, brutal, and overbearing neo-conservative/liberal hawk “nation-building” approach that has dominated the field since 9/11, towards a softer, more development-friendly partnership approach. The current approach, which mixes national security, counter-terrorism and elections assistance, and tries to force particular political outcomes, is viewed by most development professionals as counter-democracy, counter-development, and counterproductive. Taking democracy assistance away from the national security apparatus is likely to reduce costs, and make such assistance more welcome and more effective.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is a growing field in international development, amply funded with national security money. Its intention is to reduce terrorism through programs aimed at “at risk” populations. It’s a difficult and sensitive area of programming, and the current approach, driven mostly by neo-con professors and think tanks, has not been very effective, but the political and security incentives to continue are significant. CVE will probably remain fully funded, but based on campaign rhetoric and promises, will likely see an explicit acknowledgement of the role of Islam in terrorism, with possibly a name change to something like “Countering Islamic Extremism.”

So, will development assistance disappear in a Trump administration? No, of course not; but there certainly will be significant reforms aimed at improving the quality and effectiveness of U.S. assistance as well as at reducing the threat of domestic and international terror. These changes are sure to disrupt the development community, but one hopes they will also result in more effective assistance for the world’s poorest and most marginalized, and—more important—will promote a safer and more peaceful world.

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About Tim Meisburger

Tim Meisburger is an election integrity and international development specialist. During the Trump Administration, he was a Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID, and the Director of the Center for Democracy, Rights and Governance.