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The Uncertainty of Trump's Policy on Global Development

The president-elect’s promise to put “America first” has the international community on edge about the fight to make cities worldwide more livable.

A boy draws drinking water from a well using a hand pump in Peshawar, Pakistan, where access to clean water is limited. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters)

Between concerns about the future of climate change, of America’s infrastructure, and of affordable housing, it’s clear that Donald Trump’s presidency could have a rather large footprint on urban life. But it’s not only U.S. cities that could be affected by the incoming administration’s unpredictable policies; cities across the globe may also feel the ripple effects in the years to come.

The U.S. has long presented itself as a leader in global development. It’s the single largest donor in humanitarian and development efforts, with sizable contributions to development banks like the World Bank. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has also made various commitments and initiatives to help rapidly urbanizing countries combat issues like extreme poverty, food insecurity, and public health. Within the United Nations, the U.S. has championed the urgency of meeting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, one of which directly addresses the expansion of cities worldwide, and the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, which further commits countries to make cities more livable.

“In my view, urban development is global development,” says Rajiv Shah, the former administrator of USAID and now a distinguished fellow at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. “The two go hand in hand.”

But Trump has made experts, both domestic and abroad, anxious about whether the U.S. can uphold its legacy. On Wednesday, he tapped South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley—his first female and first non-white appointee—to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She’s been a sharp critic of Trump’s, calling his proposal to ban all Muslims “un-American.” But as Politico reports, “She also lacks obvious foreign policy experience, and little is known about her stance on contentious topics such as how to end the war in Syria.” She has, however, asked the State Department not to settle Syrian refugees in her state.

Short of outlining any specific foreign policy, the president-elect has made clear his own stance on things like climate change, calling it a hoax and promising to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. On development aid, he’s advocated returning America to its pre-WWII isolationists days, vowing to put “America First.” His campaign has made little mention of Africa, whose countries and cities get substantial support from the U.S., making some wonder if the region will metaphorically fall off the map.

“We have no money for education because we can’t build in our own country,” Trump told the Washington Post during his campaign. “And at what point do you say hey, we have to take care of ourselves. So, you know, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that but at the same time, our country is disintegrating, large sections of it, especially in the inner cities.” Perhaps more glaring is the statement from his presidential announcement: “It is necessary that we invest in our infrastructure, stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.”

"[Trump’s] position on development aid would have a big impact on funds available to developing countries," says Michael A. Cohen, an urban and development policy specialist at The New School in New York City (not to be confused with Trump’s attorney, Michael D. Cohen). That may not have a large effect on infrastructure building in many developing cities; Cohen says outside of the African region, most of those projects are financed through national and local funds, as well as private investment.

But what may take a hit are the various projects that make cities livable. Like Cohen, some experts wonder if USAID, which runs the gamut of the country’s development assistances programs, might bear the brunt of Trump’s forthcoming policies. That will, in part, depend on who the secretary of state will be. Names swirling in the rumor mill include Rudy Giuliani and John R. Bolton, both of whom have been extremely critical of the UN. Newt Gingrich, who is seeking a “strategic planning” role in the administration rather than a cabinet position, in 2003 called for USAID to be abolished.

Under President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for 2017, foreign aid requested by the State Department, which funds USAID, tops $42.4 billion—a number that appears large but makes up less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. As explained in a handy visual from the Washington Post, roughly $25.6 billion of that goes toward economic and development assistance, which includes programs addressing the refugee crisis, global health, and food insecurity. (The rest goes toward security aid.)

We have had a very significant urban development program ranging from Medellín, Colombia, to Amman, Jordan, to megacities in Asia, and those programs deal with everything from basic urban planning to improved public transportation that connects people from all different kinds of income communities,” Shah says. Then there are the “clean air and clean water, health and education efforts that enable populations to rise.”

Shah is optimistic, though. For years, USAID and foreign aid have generally enjoyed bipartisan support from the House and the Senate. “Republicans in the House and Senate voted consistently to support a strong budget for USAID and to rebuild its staffing and expertise, and to demand more accountability and results,” Shah says. Working with Democrats, they’ve passed bills like the Global Food Security Act to end global hunger and the Electrify Africa Act to help communities there access reliable electricity. "I have every reason to believe that Republicans will continue the very, very strong support that I experienced in ensuring that American values and investment in global development and humanitarian assistance remains strong.”

Yet foreign aid is only half the story, Cohen warns. “If the Trump administration decided that it really did not want to support the UN, that would have a major impact, not in money but in ideas and in technical advice,” he says. “Agencies like the World Health Organization that works on public health issues in cities, or UN-Habitat, the UN Fund for Population, or UNICEF are very important, advising the developing countries about policy approaches and way to address problems.”

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