Secretary Tillerson to Testify, Tough Budget Questions Ahead

June 12, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is likely to face some tough critics when he heads to Capitol Hill this week. In his first appearance(s) before Congress since his January confirmation hearing, Secretary Tillerson will have the unenviable task of defending a deeply unpopular FY2018 budget request for international affairs.

Despite promises of continued support for national security and economic priorities, the administration’s proposed budget takes an axe to foreign aid—leaving plenty of questions about how to reconcile the narrative and dollar figures. But with four hearings scheduled over two days, lawmakers may just have a chance to ask them.

Here are a few big picture issues (of many) that deserve greater scrutiny.

Prioritizing near-term foreign policy objectives over sustainable development

The budget’s rhetoric emphasizes the administration’s desire to allocate foreign aid in service of achieving US strategic and security objectives, which include building markets for US businesses and fighting violent extremism. And in key ways, rhetoric matches reality in this budget, whether in the wholesale shift in programming from the development oriented budget accounts to the strategically-oriented Economic Support Fund (newly rebranded as the “Economic Support and Development Fund”), or the full protection of support for Israel and Egypt amidst deep cuts nearly everywhere else. Using development assistance to accomplish near-term foreign policy goals isn’t new, but when aid has mixed objectives political or security needs frequently override development considerations. This can lead to tensions in program design and implementation—where the focus on achieving actual development outcomes gets blurred.

In fact, when the George W. Bush administration and Congress teamed up to establish a new aid agency focused on results—they deliberately insulated the agency from political interference. Secretary Tillerson praised the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) during his January testimony. He should acknowledge that one of MCC’s key strengths lies in its ability to target assistance to promote economic growth without pressure to fulfill other objectives.

Furthermore, to the extent that private sector activity is the key to sustained growth—both at home and abroad—it makes zero sense to kill OPIC, especially since it expands opportunities for US businesses.

Targeting assistance to maximize efficiency

While not a popular subject, the issue of aid selectivity is one that deserves attention. In a joint CGD-Brookings effort to measure the quality of official development assistance (QuODA) donors earned higher marks for focus and specialization by country and sector. This is consistent with the aid effectiveness literature which suggests donors can maximize impact through targeting assistance to reflect their comparative advantage rather than risk fragmentation or programs that are spread too thin. And yet there is little in this budget to suggest that evidence of effectiveness or comparative advantage was used to guide the decision-making that produced such deep cuts. The budget request would reduce the development aid budgets of 46 countries by more than 60 percent (see map below), absent anything other than a broad, topline justification. And the request would slash spending for global health—where we have some of the best evidence of successful interventions—by more than a quarter.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Amidst four looming famines and the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria, the budget request proposes deep cuts to humanitarian funds, including life-saving emergency food assistance. Where Congress has increased appropriations in recent years to address these realities, under the administration’s budget the US response would come up short.

And while the situations referenced above are caused by a complex set of political factors rather than food shortages alone, the administration’s budget also ignores an age-old adage by reducing US assistance designed to mitigate other causes of hunger. USAID’s Bureau for Food Security (BFS) works to bolster agricultural production—achieving higher yields and bringing drought and flood resistant crops to regions susceptible to such conditions. And in particularly vulnerable areas, US investments include pre-programmed response tools. Under the administration’s budget, BFS would lose 70 percent of its funding compared to FY2016. And the development assistance account—the largest source of funding for agricultural development initiatives in recent years—suffers a proposed cut of nearly 45 percent as part of its merger into the Economic Support and Development Fund. These cuts are short-sighted.   

In addition to being called upon to explain massive spending cuts, Tillerson is likely to face questions about the structure of the institutions tasked with delivering US foreign assistance. Check out the questions my colleagues would pose of any reorganization plan or effort. Needless to say, we’ll be watching closely to see what gets asked—and answered—in the days ahead. 

Thanks to Jared Kalow for the interactive map and chart. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.