Faculty Journal Posted on Thursday, January 19, 2017

Regrettably, America’s Foreign Aid Program Must Exit the Democracy-Promotion Business

Rob Jenkins Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center

Enacting major public policy changes in the first hundred days of a new administration is usually a more difficult feat than those who propose such reforms acknowledge. But President-elect Trump has demonstrated a decided lack of patience for drawn-out procedures.  He plans to repeal his predecessor’s signature piece of legislation, Obamacare, immediately upon taking power – even without having specified what will replace it.

So it is not inconceivable that in its first hundred days, the new administration could initiate, and substantially execute, a major change to America’s foreign aid policy – one that Mr. Trump’s arrival in office will have all but necessitated: the U.S. government must cease operating foreign-assistance programs for the promotion of democracy and good governance in aid-recipient countries.  Existing funding for these initiatives should be redirected to more conventional development activities, such as support for primary education, agricultural development, disease-prevention, and so forth.

The case for scaling back U.S. assistance for democracy promotion and governance reform under Trump is purely pragmatic. Research has consistently shown that reform programs in developing countries are most effective when aid-recipient governments “own” and genuinely believe in the policy agendas their donors have urged them to adopt.  And a crucial influence on this level of commitment is the credibility of donor governments with respect to the reform measures they promote. Denmark’s assistance to social-protection and gender-equality initiatives is regarded credibly by developing country governments because Danish national policy has shown itself committed to both objectives in practice. Germany’s success with industrial apprenticeship programs has lent credibility to its efforts to promote technical and vocational education reforms in recipient countries.

Not surprisingly, the same logic applies to the democracy and governance sector of international development: how aid-recipient governments regard their donors’ records matters. The British government’s police-reform programs in several post-conflict countries have been generally well received, if not always fully effective, because of Britain’s positive record of humane policing.

Unfortunately, when it comes to democratic governance, the United States under President Trump will lack this crucial element of credibility.  Trump’s campaign and his transition team have contradicted virtually every key element of the United States Agency for International Development’s 2013 “Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.”

USAID support for elections, for instance, stresses the need to promote fair rules for determining voter eligibility and for impartially administering elections.  And yet, the election that brought Trump to power took place after strenuous efforts by state-level authorities controlled by his party to restrict citizens’ ability to exercise their franchise.  That such efforts were directed at localities where minority voters are concentrated was noted by a federal appeals court, and yet the US judicial system appears incapable of preventing the spread of these practices.

This is all on top of the norm-violating practices engaged in by candidate Trump: encouraging violence at campaign rallies, threatening to jail his opponent, and stating that he might not abide by the election results. Had these actions occurred in a country such as India, where election rules prohibit the incitement of inter-communal conflict, Trump’s slurs against Muslim-Americans and Mexican-Americans, among others, would have been ruled out of order by India’s assertive (and fiercely independent) Election Commission, whose oversight of elections is undoubtedly a better model for other developing countries than anything the U.S. can offer by way of example.

The cognitive dissonance between USAID’s good governance principles and likely U.S. practice under President Trump is perhaps greatest in the area of public-sector transparency.  On this count, President-elect Trump has flouted longstanding tradition by not releasing his tax returns, and while those of his appointees who must be confirmed by the senate will be forced to be more forthcoming, the example being set is one of brazen opacity. A similar problem besets USAID’s support for conflict-of-interest rules to improve the integrity of public decision-making in aid-recipient countries. While no American administration has fully lived up to this ideal, President-elect Trump has indicated through his actions – and inactions – a willingness to completely disregard the norms that have underpinned conflict-of-interest rules. Trump has nominated ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, despite the firm’s clear interest in many key diplomatic decisions, including sanctions against Russia.  Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary is fast-food magnate Andrew Puzder, despite the patently anti-labor practices of much of the fast-food industry and Puzder’s own extreme views on worker rights.  Worse, the Trump transition team and its allies in the Republican-controlled Congress have sought to short-circuit the process by which the business and investment entanglements of these and other appointees are subjected to scrutiny by government ethics offices.

But most alarming of all is the appalling example set by Trump himself.  Rather than liquidating his holdings and having his assets placed in a blind trust, Trump intends merely to remove himself from active “operations” in the companies that bear his name, leaving his children in charge of his business interests.  As citizens of many aid-recipient countries know all too well, it is through the misdeeds of family members engaged in wide-ranging business ventures that corruption can be most damaging to democracy and good governance.  The cases of recently deposed leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrate how the actions of family members who exploit their proximity to power undercuts public belief in the rule of law.  For the U.S. government to continue providing technical assistance on “open government” to countries already ravaged by pervasive political nepotism of the sort that appears likely to take hold under the incoming administration would be both offensive and counterproductive.

Finally, there is the example of USAID’s support to civil society, widely regarded as crucial to holding public officials accountable and entrenching a culture of democracy.  American foreign assistance has included funding to train journalists and to promote regulations and institutions to protect the independence of media organizations.  President-elect Trump, however, has vehemently and consistently denounced the “mainstream media” – that is, organizations that undertake investigative reporting and fact checking.  Trump has promoted figures such as Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart “news” service wantonly disseminates false and misleading information.  Perhaps more worryingly, candidate Trump promised to take action to reform America’s libel laws to curb the vitality and independence of the media.

The Trump administration will be an equally untenable advocate on behalf of USAID programs that promote civil society organizations that, in theory, can act as both monitors of government performance and vehicles for philanthropic giving by better-off citizens of poor countries.  It is doubtful that such programs can be effective when the Donald J. Trump Foundation remains under investigation by the New York State Attorney General for potentially illegal practices, including the use of the charity’s funds to settle lawsuits brought against Mr. Trump personally.

To be sure, there has always been a gap between the vision of democracy and good governance advocated by America’s foreign aid program and the illiberal practices in which public authorities in the United States have sometimes engaged.  Every revelation of institutional racism has dented America’s democratic credentials; each case of corruption by a U.S. public official has taken its toll on the country’s reputation for accountable governance.  What makes the Trump administration different, however, is its open contempt for the basic principles underlying democratic governance and the rule of law.

It is this disregard for accepted norms that makes it regrettably necessary for the U.S. to bring to an end the democracy-promotion initiatives that have been a key part of U.S. foreign aid for more than three decades.  The glaring contrast between what the U.S. promotes in countries to which it provides aid, and the positions adopted (and practices undertaken) by its incoming President, risks undermining through association the many essential development activities supported by USAID.

One alternative to simply ending America’s democracy-promotion efforts would be to divert the resources expended in this area to international organizations, such as the United Nations Democracy Fund or the governance programs operated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Given President-elect Trump’s dismissive comments about the United Nations, and his bias against “nation building” – including the promotion of democracy and improved governance – subcontracting these functions to international bodies seems highly unlikely.  Under such circumstances, and in light of the high probability that America’s crisis of democracy will worsen under the Trump administration, reallocating USAID’s democracy-promotion funds to traditional development sectors is the least bad alternative.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Rob Jenkins is Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His latest book, Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (coauthored with James Manor), was published in the UK this month by Hurst, and (as of March 2017) will be available in North America from Oxford University Press.