Prime Minister May: Please Discuss International Development With President Trump

On Friday, January 27, Prime Minister Theresa May will visit President Donald Trump in Washington – making her the first foreign leader to meet with the new president. The United States and the United Kingdom will recommit to the U.S.-UK “special relationship” – a welcome development. One topic that deserves a few minutes of discussion is foreign assistance as a form of soft power. The UK uses its foreign assistance as soft power, but justifies every pound the UK spends. The UK has gone through several rigorous top-to-bottom reviews of its foreign assistance, and the United States should follow Britain’s lead and conduct a similar top-to-bottom review of our foreign assistance commitments.

Prime Minister Theresa May.

In 2011, the UK underwent its first multilateral aid review (MAR) in order to determine how to cut UK support to inefficient multilateral agencies and reallocate £50 million in financial support to effective multilateral agencies. In 2011, forty-three organizations including all UN agencies and the World Bank were assessed by the MAR and categorized by the value for the money spent. Nine offered “very good value for money,” sixteen were categorized as “good,” nine as “adequate,” and nine as “poor.” The UK Department for International Development (DFID), the UK foreign aid agency, used the results of the MAR to increase funding by 25 percent to the World Bank and by nearly 200 percent for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – two “very good” programs. The UK ended membership in the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and scaled back involvement in the International Labor Organization (ILO) after determining their “very poor” value. The MAR was repeated in 2013 and 2015, and other adjustments have been made.


The UK’s bilateral aid review (BAR), also conducted by DFID in 2011, looked at all the countries in which DFID operated. The review sought to determine the countries in which DFID could “have the greatest impact” and to reduce the overall number of countries in which DFID works. The UK used the BAR to focus on 27 countries – down from about 90 countries before the review.

This kind of top-to-bottom review of foreign assistance is long overdue by the United States. A review of foreign assistance spending would help the Trump administration think about how to reevaluate the U.S. relationship with the UN. While the UN security council vote by 14 member nations condemning Israel should not lead to the United States defunding UN programs, the inefficient spending of UN agencies should. The Trump transition team was unfairly criticized for asking probing and critical, first-order questions about the issues such as the efficacy of aid in Africa. The Trump team’s instincts are well placed and a top-to-bottom review would channel these concerns and would allow a strategic process to determine how to most effectively spend aid dollars in the interest of the United States.

A U.S. review similar to the MAR and BAR would reevaluate which multilateral organizations we should continue to support, which countries we should continue to provide aid, and which program offer the United States real value.  Such a review would also look at middle income countries that have “outgrown” traditional foreign assistance. Many middle income countries no longer need or want traditional aid, but instead want science and higher education partnerships and further trade with the United States.

 In an ideal world, the next USAID administrator would chair this review with participation from the State Department, the Treasury, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and others. The review would then be presented to the President and the relevant Congressional Committees. Such a review would ask a series of questions such as:
  1. Is this activity keeping the United States safe?
  2. Does this activity demonstrate impact?
  3. Does this activity offer geostrategic benefits to the United States (for example, vis a vis China)?

In October, Minister Priti Patel, the Secretary of State for International Development, made a speech at the Conservative Party Conference that emphasized reform, transparency, accountability, the central role of private enterprise for pulling people out of poverty, the importance of supporting women and girls, and a renewed commitment to Afghanistan. Prime Minister May might use her time to brief President Trump on the UK’s £750 million commitment to Afghanistan to support stability, health, and education efforts.

In addition, Minister Patel should make a trip to Washington in the very near future to offer suggestions and recommendations following Prime Minister May’s visit. Additionally, former Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell – one of the most thoughtful and creative development ministers in UK history has unique expertise and great credibility in the Republican party.  Now is the time for him to visit the United States as well while the new Administration is getting up and running.

At Friday’s meeting, Prime Minister May has many things to discuss, but she should use some of her time to share the UK’s thinking about foreign assistance as soft power and the UK’s rigorous process of assistance reform that should be adopted by the Trump administration.

Article Published in on January 24, 2017.

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