Avoiding Infection: International Development and the Trump Administration

It’s not a surprise that those of us in international development organizations, like most everyone who cares about the survival of the planet, are profoundly concerned about the next four years (translation: sobbing hysterically into our morning cereal). Yes, we griped plenty about the slow pace of change in the Obama administration – for example, it took AGES to get a USAID administrator, and to change some particularly egregious Bush administration policies, such as the abstinence preferences in HIV programs. And activists critiqued and condemned the Obama administration’s policies on a variety of international humanitarian and development issues – that was our job.

At the same time, there was undeniably immense progress on “doing development right.” Here we are eight years later, and USAID has implemented a strong gender equality policy, integration of family planning and HIV services is a reality, groups that discriminate against LGBT persons are no longer given a free pass, climate change is seriously considered in a range of development programs, and local partners are increasingly consulted and included.

It’s not perfect, but we have learned a tremendous amount about how to do development well in the last eight years. Our challenge now is making sure this understanding is not jettisoned in our quest to adapt to the incoming administration.

How do we as development professionals and advocates, who are motivated by doing good in the world but also motivated by retaining our jobs, staying in business and (in some cases) making a profit – not get infected by an administration whose most powerful members reject evidence and/or hold repellent beliefs about much of the world? How do we inoculate ourselves against an America-First, “anti-globalist” ideology that replaces compassion and respect for human rights with a shortsighted and crass centering of U.S. profit and security?

These are not theoretical questions. There are going to be real decisions about cooperation versus resistance in the next four years – and frankly, the U.S. development community does not have the strongest of records in speaking truth to power. There are justifiable reasons for collaboration when the good we do in other countries outweighs the sacrifices of going along with bad policy. But we need to decide where the lines are – when no investment (or an investment in another contractor) is better than one that distorts our principles and betrays the people we are supposed to serve.

We will establish our complicity or our resistance through specific decisions. Do we integrate attention to gender in our work, even when it’s not required? Do we continue to talk to and work with organizations that provide abortion care, or do we turn our backs out of fear and an over-interpretation of the Global Gag Rule? Do we tell our HIV providers to stop offering family planning? What about serving LGBT groups, and protecting LGBT employees? Do we stop talking about and planning for climate change when it’s no longer a priority? Will we continue to see structures and systems as barriers to health, education, and economic success, or will we lapse back to thinking individual behavior alone determines success or failure? Will we help human rights groups raise the alarm by providing the evidence of poor policy and cruelty that we will have in spades, or do we stay silent?

The Trump administration will leave deep, deep wounds on the world. As development professionals and human rights advocates, we can be the connective tissue that helps knit the world back together – or we can be the scarring that takes on the exact shape of the wounds that he creates. The Trump administration will not be all-powerful without acquiescence. The people around the world we work with will either see us as a reflection of him, or his antithesis. Will we let his leadership define who the American people are?

In my optimistic (not crying in my cereal) moments, I see this as an opportunity. Our democracy is on life support, our rule of law is questionable, our domestic commitment to gender equality is laughable, our respect for human rights is intermittent. Perhaps this – our greatest moment of weakness — is precisely the moment in which we can transform our approach to international development. Maybe this is an opportunity to make a shift – tonal and structural – that tells people around the world that we don’t know better. We are just trying to figure this all out too. Maybe out of this profound lack of normalcy, we can be WITH the world instead of pretending that we’re the experts. Perhaps – even in the face of personal and professional risks — resistance and solidarity within the international development community will become our best legacy for the world.



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