Photo: Tyler J. Clements 

What Trump means for the international development community in the US

22 February 2017
Author: Sam Worthington

Last November’s presidential election in the United States was one of the most consequential and divisive in recent history. With both parties playing to very divided political bases and strong anti-establishment sentiments in many parts of the nation, the question of what role the United States should play as a global leader received scant discussion on the national stage.

With a conservative Republican Party controlling all elected branches of government for the first time in about ten years, and a motivated Democratic opposition protesting in the streets, a climate of uncertainty will ensure changes to the way the United States carries out its refugee, humanitarian and development cooperation policies.

But by continuing to work together, the US NGO community can work to safeguard our nation's long and proud bipartisan commitment to improving the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable populations across the globe. 

In order for the US NGO community to build its resilience to serve the world’s most vulnerable people in this volatile time, we will need to both embrace our core principles and values. We also must recognize where new partnerships and collaboration can protect our vital work and the legacy of US investments in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals and other global goals.

Unfortunately, it is likely that development initiatives from both the Bush and Obama administrations may not survive this transition. US investments in aspects of reproductive health and climate change will end or see significant cuts. And US support for key international institutions like the UN could be dramatically reduced. 

Specifically, reductions in reproductive health programming would be carried out under what is commonly known as the “Mexico City Protocol”. This protocol, instituted by Republican Presidential administrations, remains controversial, and there are concerns among some InterAction members that the current administration’s broad interpretation of it would potentially impact hospitals and local public health institutions that rely on US support.

Given previous US leadership in reproductive health, if other bilateral donors do not step up, we may see a significant decline in reproductive health resources. However, early signs by some donors, including European governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, give hope that the impact can be somewhat mitigated.

Entering untested waters 

As a politically diverse US NGO sector, we are confronted with a new political landscape. How do we maintain some influence? When and where do we push back and say no? How do we keep the sector aligned as cuts are made, while remaining both pragmatic and true to our principles? We are entering into untested waters.

After less than a month in office, an Executive Order, issued by the new administration proposed radical changes to the admission of refugees to the US from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia. The order closes a pathway for those seeking to escape war and oppression, and it has damaged the moral standing of the US as a principled actor committed to humanitarian norms and the world’s most vulnerable people.

The Executive Order stands in sharp contrast to the values embraced by our community. These values include the moral responsibility of alleviating poverty and suffering, the prevention of war and fragility through proactive international development and humanitarian assistance, our support for the inherent rights and dignity of all people, and our desire that the US remains positively engaged in the world. 

On a practical level, in addition to endangering the wellbeing of families with valid US visas, the Executive Order will make it more difficult for national staff of US international development and humanitarian NGOs to either travel from countries covered by the order or to visit these countries due to reciprocal measures carried out against US citizens. And it has created uncertainty in the minds of many about the new administration's commitment to a host of other refugee, humanitarian, and development cooperation issues. 

In this challenging environment, solidarity is essential 

We must stand together with other advocates for policies we believe in and will embrace any members of the US NGO community who might feel threatened by these or future actions of the administration, or any cultural intolerance it has fostered.

US development cooperation and humanitarian assistance has been successful at helping eliminate extreme poverty and vulnerability, strengthening human rights and citizen participation, safeguarding a sustainable planet, and promoting peace and ensuring dignity for all people. In addition to having improved countless lives globally, it has promoted both US national interests as well as multilateral goals. 

While we can only guess how the Trump administration will fund development cooperation, we will continue to rely on our relationships with a strong bipartisan consensus in Congress. Members of both political parties are aware of and support the successful legacy of US international assistance. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, two significant US aid programmes, were initiated by former President George W. Bush and approved by Congress. A Republican Congress enacted the Global Food Security Act which was signed by President Obama.

A bipartisan global outlook embraces that international development assistance is a priority no matter which party controls government. And at InterAction, we look forward to drawing on our experience to stand up for a Federal budget that builds on this legacy.

Ultimately, the priorities of the Trump administration and the budget that Congress chooses to pass is a reflection of whether the US will only look inward or remain open to multilateral engagements and lifting up the world’s most vulnerable people.

We are passing through an exceptional time of global uncertainty and fragility and it is in the national interest of the US to invest in global stability, sustainable prosperity and efforts that advance human wellbeing. 

About the author

Sam Worthington headshot

Sam Worthington is the CEO of InterAction