Bipartisan Advances in International Development Defy Conventional Wisdom

Syrians receive food aid from the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency in Jinderes, Syria, on March 18, 2018.

As hard as it may be to believe, there remains bipartisan agreement on some key issues in Congress. Republicans and Democrats have recently collaborated on significant pieces of legislation that have made international development one of the most fruitful areas of agreement and reform in American public policy over the past several years.

At the end of the Obama administration and continuing into the Trump administration, legislators on both sides of the aisle pushed out a steady stream of well-crafted, bipartisan legislation around practical compromises to improve the effectiveness of the U.S. foreign aid program. In short, international development is one of the few areas where government has been working the way it should.

Really, it is true.

Obama-era achievements

The end of the Obama administration brought a burst of well-regarded legislation on international development—all of it supported on a bipartisan basis in a city where even renaming a post office has become a partisan exercise.

One such piece of legislation is the Electrify Africa Act, which President Barack Obama signed in February 2016. This act signaled a long-term commitment to expand access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa, where energy poverty is an enormous obstacle to development. If you live in the United States, your refrigerator probably consumes about three times as much energy in a year as does the average Kenyan.

The Electrify Africa Act is a measure that harnesses the private sector to address a real development need. The bill tackles a key priority of Africa’s leadership: expanding access to energy. U.S. assistance on this issue was designed to be used in a catalytic fashion that has leveraged much larger amounts of private capital as it has moved forward. This had a lot to do with its wide appeal: It had bipartisan sponsorship in both the House and the Senate, ultimately passing unanimously in the Senate.

Following the Electrify Africa Act, Obama signed the Global Food Security Act in July 2016. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced this act to codify elements of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative—a major effort to combat hunger around the globe. The initiative works in conjunction with a number of European donors to effectively promote rural agriculture and address world hunger. The targeted approach of Feed the Future has a solid record in addressing issues such as stunting—impaired growth in children due to malnutrition.

In the same month, President Obama signed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, which was first introduced in 2011, into law. After years of quiet bipartisan work on the Hill, Congress and the administration agreed to a sensible package that requires better monitoring and evaluation of U.S. foreign assistance programs to gauge whether they are effective. The law also requires that data about these programs be more easily accessible to the public. In the House, bipartisan work on the bill brought together an unusual cast of characters, including very conservative Republicans such as Reps. Ted Poe (TX) and Ted Yoho (FL), along with Democrats such as Reps. Beto O’Rourke (TX) and Adam Smith (WA). On the Senate side, the bill was supported by reliable internationalist stalwarts on both sides of the aisle, such as Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

A rocky start to international development in the Trump administration

With so many achievements in bipartisan legislation at the close of the Obama administration, it was understandable that the international development community felt apprehensive and even panicked with the election of President Donald Trump. Trump had regularly bashed international assistance in his campaign, saying that the United States should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.” After Trump moved into the White House, his transition team did not immediately visit the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers many of the international aid programs—a sharp break from traditional practice.

Many of Trump’s initial steps seemed to confirm the international development community’s worst fears. One of Trump’s first acts in office was to instate an expanded Global Gag Rule, a policy that restricts U.S. foreign aid recipients from using their own private funds to offer abortion-related services or advocate for the legalization of abortion within the countries where they work. Trump approved this expansion despite research that repeatedly demonstrated that the Global Gag Rule actually increases abortion rates and drives up easily preventable deaths among women and children.

President Trump also called for an almost 30 percent cut in foreign assistance programs in his first budget request to Congress, which would have crippled a range of efforts, from famine early warning systems to global pandemic response. The proposed cuts were indeed so draconian that more than 120 retired generals and admirals opposed them, saying bluntly to Congress, “Now is not the time to retreat.”

But the president and his senior administration officials continue to lead a retreat. Trump has dismissed Africa as a continent of “shithole countries” and argued that U.S. immigration visas should be prioritized for other countries, such as Norway. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has applied the narrow lens of Trump’s so-called “America First” approach to foreign aid, arguing that aid should only go to countries that vote with the United States at the United Nations. This approach is neither smart nor effective; international development has never been about winning votes at the United Nations. With these and so many other hostile actions dominating headlines during President Trump’s tenure, it is understandable to think that all has been bleak on the international development front since 2016.

A bipartisan Congress stands up for international aid

Trump’s initial budget request for fiscal year 2018, which sets aside little funding for international development, provoked a strong, bipartisan response on the Hill. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), a Republican and an on-again, off-again Trump loyalist, declared the budget “dead on arrival.” Sen. Rubio also pushed back, tweeting about foreign aid, “We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1% of budget [and] critical to our national security.”

Thanks to strong group of bipartisan champions on the Hill, funding for aid programs has remained relatively level since Trump took office. The Trump administration requested a huge cut to aid programs in its fiscal year 2019 request, but the effort was halfhearted and did not even include details on which countries or programs they were seeking to cut. These cuts were promptly rejected by Congress again this year.

In what has been perhaps the most surprising development, President Trump appointed former U.S. Ambassador and Rep. Mark Green (R) to run USAID. Green has long been a strong voice on the importance of international development. His appointment evinced an enormous sigh of relief among USAID officials who were braced for the very worst.

Green, unlike former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seems to take morale, management, and mission seriously. Whereas Tillerson spent $12 million on outside consulting fees for a reorganization effort that stalled before his departure, Green quietly worked behind the scenes and rolled out his own reorganization effort developed by his own staff. The response to it has been generally positive as Green tries to better organize the agency’s humanitarian and conflict work, as well as weaves the use of metrics more heavily into program and budget decisions.

In the time since Trump took office, Congress has kept up its defense of international development on the legislative front. In late February 2018, Sens. Coons and Bob Corker (R-TN) introduced bipartisan legislation to create the International Development Finance Corporation, which would aim to better utilize U.S. private investment to encourage economic growth in the developing world. It was simultaneously rolled out in the House side by Reps. Yoho and Smith.

Despite being the largest bilateral donor of foreign assistance, the United States has traditionally allocated only a modest portion of its aid budget to what is known as ‘development finance’ and has invested it through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Sens. Coons and Corker’s legislation would essentially overhaul and expand OPIC to make it the International Development Finance Corporation, which would give it new authority and the ability to lend larger amounts. It would also consolidate the development finance functions from several other agencies under a single roof. This is good news for the taxpayer; these changes in development finance would pay for themselves, because these are loans rather than grants. OPIC has also always generated a surplus for the U.S. Department of the Treasury while boosting much-needed economic progress in the developing world.

The legislation is the product of years of careful, diligent, and skillful groundwork and negotiations by a thoughtful group of leaders in the development community, including former heads of OPIC, bipartisan congressional staffers, think tanks, and others. This coalition offers powerful evidence that good work can get done even in today’s highly polarized political environment.

Most recently, the Senate passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Modernization Act with comfortable bipartisan support on April 13, and President Trump signed the bill into law on April 24. The legislation allows the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which partners with developing countries able to meet demanding benchmarks on their commitment to social and economic reform, to develop regional compacts that will maximize poverty reduction while encouraging regional trade and integration. The bill also helps renew some trade privileges for eligible African countries while offering them practical assistance to increase their trading capacity.

Conclusion

We find ourselves at a remarkable moment in U.S. history with regard to foreign aid. There has never been a U.S. president who appears less committed to the intrinsic value of helping the poor and underprivileged of the developing world raise themselves up. Never has there been a U.S. president who shows such callous disregard of the value of democracy and free markets to national interest and to the people of the developing world themselves. At the very same moment, there has likely never been a broader, more effective, and more bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill that not only values international development but also has a very nuanced understanding of how it works. The fact that this coalition of responsible internationalists has produced such a steady stream of sensible legislation that is helping international aid efforts reach a larger amount of people in more effective ways is a very real accomplishment that will touch millions of lives around the globe.

At a time when bad news is creating an unprecedented level of noise, bipartisan progress in international development is no small feat.

John Norris is a senior fellow and the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.