Concerns that Donald Trump will dramatically cut US aid spending and oversee a withdrawal from global development have sent shockwaves through NGOs and others who fear what the impact of his presidency will be on the world’s largest donor of international humanitarian and development funding.
Following a campaign in which he said little about the issue, those searching for clues are pouring over a handful of tweets and other brief references, such as his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges and schools”.
There was short shrift too even for Americans who became infected after treating Ebola patients in West Africa, with Trump suggesting that they could not come back, adding: “People that go to far away places to help out are great – but must suffer the consequences!”
For some, a Trump White House could now pose an existential threat to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the lead US government body for administering aid, which benefited during Barack Obama’s tenure.
“It’s my instinct to think that there is potentially a danger that USAID could be abolished or diminished and folded into the State Department,” said Alex Thier, formerly a senior USAID official under Obama and now an incoming executive director of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
Thier pointed out that there had traditionally been a “back and forth” process in terms of how Democratic and Republican administrations had empowered USAID, which has even had its own seat at Obama’s cabinet, but that a crucial determinant would be Trump’s pick as Secretary of State.
So far, names mentioned include the experienced diplomat Richard Haas, as well as Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Other names include Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives who once called for the abolition of USAID.
US overseas development assistance amounted to $31.08bn [29billion euros] in 2015 but just 0.17% of GNI. Although under the control of the administration, spending is set by Congress. It may be hard to resist an easy opportunity to shore up a voter base which, polls show, is often either unaware or are not convinced that the US aid contribution is smaller than in many other countries.
“Foreign aid has always been unpopular in the US, but Trump is as populist and right wing as you can get,” said Nadia Naviwala, a former USAID desk officer and country representative in Pakistan for the United States Institute of Peace.
“It will be hard for USAID to convince him that taxpayer money should be spent on fixing foreign countries. National security arguments won’t work as well as they did 10 years ago. Aid has failed to prove that it makes America safer, which is the rationale for the bulk of the aid that goes to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.”
Those looking on with trepidation include the global NGO community. Sean Lowrie, director of the Start Network, which has 42 members worldwide and is advocating for change in the system of humanitarian aid, added: “If President Trump does half of what he’s said, or hinted, he may do, it could cause huge disruption to help being given to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Let’s hope some of it proves to be the campaign equivalent of ‘locker room talk’.”
Some observers detect signs of policy continuity however, in particular in Africa. Malte Liewerscheidt, a senior Analyst at the Risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, said he expected cuts but suggested that the role of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania as regional allies against terrorism could buffer them. The same applied to Nigeria, due to receive $600m in US development assistance this year.
“If we assume the approach to aid cuts will be a rational one then I don’t assume major changes to those countries,” added Liewerscheidt, who suggested that development programmes such as Obama’s Power Africa Initiative could be insulated from cuts on the basis of opening up business options.
Other titbits of evidence giving signs of Trump’s relative disposition towards certain types of aid exist. “Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water,” he said in September, while committing on another occasion to supporting Pepfar, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
For those hoping cuts will not happen, some solace too might be had from the relative bi-partisan support of development policy. Through a recession and a Republican Congress, foreign aid spending did not fall, and one of the few initiatives to make its way through the legislature was the plan to electrify Africa.
The longer term historical record offers another crumb of comfort. Thier added: “A lot of conservatives come into office with publicly stated attitudes that are hostile to foreign aid and very quickly learn that it is a critical tool and come to like it a lot more. It was true of Reagan and George W Bush.
“More recently, what is also interesting is the real revolution in the last 10 to 15 years in the importance of using official development assistance as a tool to leverage larger pools of investment from the private sector and other multilateral institutions. That’s certainly the case with building infrastructure. Is there potential at least for this kind of idea, if he gets the right people in place, to actually appeal to the self-proclaimed king of debt, who sold himself as someone with a career as a builder?”