Over the past eight years, the Obama administration elevated engagement in global development as “a key pillar of American foreign policy.”
“If you care about human dignity, if you care about reducing violence and terrorism, if you care about fighting climate change, if you care about addressing inequality and creating trade and prosperity that works for all and not just some, then you’re going to have to pay attention to development and you’re going to have to make an investment,” Obama said at this summer’s White House Summit on Global Development.
With the election of Donald Trump, those priorities seemingly will shift.
Some development experts hope a Trump administration will continue the Republican tradition of promoting foreign assistance to promote global health, democracy and economic growth around the world.
“President George W. Bush had no record of being pro-Africa or pro-foreign assistance and he left an absolutely stellar record,” said Todd Moss, chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who worked in the State Department during the Bush administration.
“We have a long tradition of American leadership on national security, and development is a foundation for all of the human progress we’ve seen over the last half-century,” Moss said. “There are obviously disputes over what’s the best way to do that and we will soon see what ideas are to come out of (Trump’s) administration. It’s too early to say anything with certainty.”
But the president-elect’s initial choices and the uncertainty over the makeup of his Cabinet are rattling some development professionals.
Trump has so far made his picks for three key posts: Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general, retired Army Lt. Gen and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn for national security adviser and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., for CIA director.
Sessions, a former U.S. attorney, said he would crack down on illegal immigration and has been criticized for making racist comments. Flynn has called Islam a “cancer” and a “political ideology” masquerading as a religion. Pompeo shares Trump’s views on issues such as using controversial tactics for interrogation and withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement.
Many in the global development community are now concerned about what is ahead for such things as refugee resettlement, women’s reproductive rights and foreign aid, and U.S. efforts to fight poverty, hunger and disease worldwide.
Trump said very little about his foreign-aid policy during the campaign, but did reject nation-building and said “it is necessary that we invest in our infrastructure and stop sending aid to countries that hate us.”
“Given what (Trump) said on the campaign trail about the need for our closest allies to pay their fair share, I don’t think it bodes well for foreign aid in general, and certainly not for development aid,” said Kal Raustiala, professor of law and director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We might anticipate some more radical changes. His rhetoric has not been promising.”
U.S. foreign aid, which is currently less than 1 percent of the federal budget, has gone toward helping lift millions of people out of poverty, officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development say. U.S.-sponsored programs are helping to boost the income of small-scale farmers in developing nations, improve the nutrition of women and children, and fight malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Raustiala said continuing to help those in need is not important only for the humanitarian and moral reasons that have been held as a core aspect of U.S. foreign policy, it is also important to protecting U.S. interests and global leadership.
“If the U.S. is not an actively engaged member of the international community and assisting many countries with their development, somebody else will — and maybe in ways that are much less positive for us,” he said. “American engagement in the world is not about doing the world a favor. It’s been about securing our place and leadership in the world and engaging to ensure that a stable, liberal, rules-based order can persist, which is to everyone’s benefit.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he wants to stop taking in refugees fleeing violence in Syria and called for “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He later softened that stand, saying he would consider allowing Muslims as long as they were “vetted strongly,” but the call for excluding Muslims from the U.S. remains on his campaign website.
The U.S. is the world’s top resettlement country for refugees, and the Obama administration said this year that it wants to resettle 110,000 refugees next year, up from 85,000 in 2016.
Bipartisan legislation supporting refugees has recently been introduced to Congress, including the Middle East Refugee Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, which would provide an additional $1 billion in emergency funding for refugee protection, screening and resettlement. But advocates for refugees fear that such cooperation could end under Trump.
“We’re alarmed, because what’s going to happen for sure is that the system is going to be shaken up and the status quo will no longer be relevant,” said Neil Grungras, founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. “The worst fear of the refugee community is that the Trump presidency will just stop the refugee program.”
Grungras said the anxiety was palpable.
“The refugees that are obviously at the end of the gun are Muslims,” Grungras said. “The level of desperation is indescribable for everybody. But LGBT refugees could also be enormously hard hit.”
The U.S. funds more than half the operations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Trump has attacked the level of the U.S. contribution to the U.N.
“In a worst-case scenario … if the UNHCR is weakened and cannot process refugees, if it’s defunded, that mainstay of refugee protection is going to be harmed — and it may be very severely,” Grungras said.
Volunteer agencies that manage refugee resettlement in the U.S. also depend on government funding and could be forced to lay off staff if resources are cut. That could disrupt the processing of refugees already flowing through the resettlement pipeline, refugee advocates said.
“Women around the world are alarmed,” said Francoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition. “We’ve received many messages from all over the world following the election, expressing sadness, expressing shock, expressing anxiety and concern about the direction the U.S. government will take under a Trump administration.”
During the campaign, Trump promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who could overturn federal legislation affirming a woman’s right to have an abortion. Doing so could have harmful reverberations worldwide, advocates said.
“The United States is of course a very important and influential country in global diplomacy,” Girard said. “It has also historically set the pace on women’s rights. What we’re afraid of (is) a regression on women’s sexual, reproductive and health rights.”
U.S. funding for programs such as the distribution of contraceptives in developing nations might also be at risk, and some rights advocates expect a renewed emphasis on abstinence until marriage as a method of HIV prevention, Girard said.
Trump’s proposals to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally, possibly ban Muslims — and to reintroduce the use of torture methods such as waterboarding during interrogations — are widely condemned.
Human rights activists warned that promoting xenophobia, sexism and discrimination at home could embolden governments that the U.S. has criticized for such behavior to expand such practices, and they have called on Trump to reaffirm and abide by the principles the U.S. has promoted worldwide.
“From internment camps to the use of torture, we have seen disastrous results when those we elect to represent us flout the United States’ obligations to uphold human rights,” Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.
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