International development orgs hold greater responsibility in Trump era, senator says

September 27, 2017

In light of current challenges, development organizations as well as Congress and the business community bear tremendous responsibility for safeguarding and advancing development assistance as a critical component of American leadership and security, Sen. Ben Cardin said during a Devex-Pact discussion on the future of global development and U.S. foreign aid.

Held Sept. 26 at Microsoft’s Washington, D.C. office, the conversation was led by Devex’s president and editor-in-chief, Raj Kumar. Pact underwrote the event, which focused on the changing development landscape.

Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, told attendees that while military and economic strength are vital, U.S. global leadership has long been based on values.

“America’s strength is in our ideals,” Cardin said, and the United States historically has demonstrated those ideals through diplomacy and development assistance, in programming areas such as human rights, anti-corruption and the advancement of democracy.

“This is where America has shined,” Cardin said. “We’ve seen America’s leadership at its best, but today it’s being challenged” by Donald Trump’s 'America first' policy, his rhetoric, budget cuts he has proposed, and more.

In addition to Congress, Cardin told attendees, “This means your responsibility is even more today than before.”

Senator Ben Cardin (photo by Devex)

The bright side, he said, is that development assistance is not a partisan issue among legislators, with strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Another big positive, Cardin noted, is USAID’s new administrator, Mark Green, who took the agency’s top post in August and who Cardin described as both experienced and credible. “Mark Green is one of the bright lights in the Trump administration, and I’m very pleased he decided to go forward under extremely challenging circumstances.”

Kumar asked Cardin what development organizations should be most concerned about.

Budget cuts, Cardin answered, but not just those that are made formally. He warned that even when Congress appropriates funding, agencies can be directed to focus elsewhere or leave money unspent. Cardin cited the unprecedented number of unfilled federal positions as an example.

Speaking about proposals to merge the State Department and USAID, Cardin said, “Anyone in the know is against it.” Still, he said he sees the move as a looming possibility; nearly all of the president’s advisers were against America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Cardin noted, but it happened anyway.

Cardin has been a steadfast champion of U.S. foreign development assistance throughout his time in Congress – the type of ally that is more important than ever, Pact’s president and CEO, Mark Viso, said in opening remarks. 

“International development organizations still have a long way to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in time for 2030, and the old way of doing development project by project, though necessary, is insufficient to get us there,” Viso said. “We need to invest in systemic solutions and develop robust and dynamic partnerships with businesses, governments, NGOs and local organizations where we work, and with those we serve.”

Viso praised companies such as Microsoft, which partners with Pact to combat child labor in the mineral supply chain, and government leaders such as Cardin, who Viso called “a supporter of diplomacy and development as core pillars of our foreign policy, and a tireless advocate for America’s continued, active engagement in the world.”

Pact President and CEO Mark Viso (photo by Devex)

Asked what arguments the global development community needs to be making to persuade voters of its value, Cardin said he thinks most Americans recognize the unique leadership capacity their country holds, and they want it to be used for good.

“I think first we go back to American values,” he said. “We are a generous nation.”

Cardin also suggested telling more personal, individualized stories of impact, and driving home the security and economic benefits of global development.

He acknowledged that doing sustainable, integrated development is a greater challenge in today’s landscape but said it still must be a priority, as must aid for refugees and development work in fragile states. He said he sees democracy building and anti-corruption as areas in which U.S. foreign assistance is underinvested, and Africa, especially, would benefit from increases.

Cardin called the global gag rule, also known as The Mexico City Policy, which denies U.S. funding to aid organizations that offer or discuss abortion, “extremely dangerous.” He suggested organizations that provide maternal health services work to ease restrictions “in a quiet way” with Republicans who understand what’s at stake.

As for whether Congress will soon pass a budget, Cardin said, “I think we will have some continuing resolution until next year.”  


Photos and video courtesy of Devex.