Evaluating the future of US international development policy under each new presidential administration is a crucial exercise in charting a thoughtful, realistic path forward. Regardless of intent, President-elect Donald Trump has exhibited limited interest in the US government’s role in advancing better outcomes for anyone beyond the borders of the United States. There is, at best, irony in the benevolent involvement of the US government in foreign states under a Trump administration. To preserve and continue US efforts in international development, there are two policy options that development leaders should immediately prioritize: using “pay for performance” to deliver overseas development assistance (ODA) and emphasizing the international work of US non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Although we cannot yet know the actions a Trump administration will take, we must acknowledge that many areas of the US development agenda have already been undermined. These areas include women’s rights, smart energy production and sustainability, assistance to displaced and disenfranchised populations, and, more fundamentally, the notion that investing in poverty reduction enhances national prosperity and stability. Other priorities likely to be negatively impacted include increasing domestic revenues via higher taxes to help pay for development initiatives in countries that receive foreign aid, promoting social equality and inclusion, and pushing to bind national policy to global governance structures like the Paris Agreement.
With these likely shifts in mind, pay for performance should become the US government’s primary ODA delivery tool for achieving development goals. Pay for performance is an ODA payment model that offers financial incentives to recipient governments, usually at the national level, for achieving certain performance targets such as a certain number of students completing primary school. Debate has raged since the conception of ODA over the best way to deliver it, but the case for enacting pay for performance is stronger than ever.
Pay for performance is key for US development policy under a Trump administration because a donor—the United States, for example—can excuse itself from participating in the recipient country’s internal policymaking aimed at achieving the performance that will be rewarded. This structure is newly important because opponents of effective policy options in recipient countries can now credibly argue that the United States has no right to infringe on their sovereignty in areas that the United States is not enacting in its own policies. Additionally, US government actors may not be able to advise that certain priorities we know to be crucial to international development be included in the policy roadmap a recipient government creates for reaching their performance target. We have already seen this concept in action: President Ronald Reagan’s “global gag rule” has prohibited important official US development work in family planning under every administration that has implemented it. The value of clearing the way for national policymakers to include priorities in their roadmap as they see fit cannot be overstated, because domestic leaders must be empowered to create change when policy windows open.
The international work of US NGOs must also be relied on more than ever before. US development policy needs an alternate narrative of collaboration, one that does not rely on top-down strategies and funding. We cannot afford to lose the knowledge and strength of grassroots efforts. The role of NGOs will be especially critical in areas like women’s health, climate change adaptation, and migration, as the United States is unlikely to increase support for these issues.
Special emphasis should be given to US NGOs that operate outside of the funding—and thus, agenda constraints—of the US government. These may, for example, be large philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, or small privately-funded organizations like Midwives on Missions of Service. While NGOs have come under fire for reasons like tolerating inefficiency, overwhelming communities, or distorting the government-civil society link, their work is the most reliable avenue that remains. The United States has never strongly regulated the work of these NGOs, and it is doubtful now is the time this will happen. Citizens in the countries US NGOs operate in should call on their governments to exercise oversight and evaluation of these actors and demand the right to set the terms of outsider involvement in their lives and countries.
The development community must be clear-minded and deliberate in recognizing and addressing the complex impact the 2016 US presidential election will have on its ability to achieve development goals. International development leaders should take swift collective action to define the path forward on our own terms.
Emily Foecke is a Research Assistant with the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. She earned her Master of International Affairs in 2016 from the University of California-San Diego, where she concentrated on international development policy. Emily is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
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