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How Trump and Tillerson can surprise the world, save millions of lives, and make America safer

Written by Alex Thier


When former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson appears for his confirmation hearing today to be the next US Secretary of State, the world will learn more about the foreign policy views of a key (prospective) Trump administration figure than we’ve heard from the President-elect himself in the past two years.

It’s a chance for senators across the political spectrum to probe and push the nominee – and indirectly his boss – on the most important issues of the day, from Syria and Russia to refugees, climate change, and human rights.

While we should expect a game of verbal cat and mouse on some controversial issues (Putin, Taiwan, Cuba), it is also a chance to put forward a positive agenda on the power of foreign assistance to do great things. Here are some ideas for how the new administration can use aid to defy expectations, save millions of lives, and make America safer.

1. Foreign aid is the best dollar spent

So here’s an investment secret that may interest the President-elect and his future chief diplomat: the best tax dollar spent goes to foreign aid. Less than 1% of the federal budget goes to supporting the eradication of deadly diseases, educating children, ending hunger, helping refugees, and even helping countries raise more of their own money to pay for these things.

Sceptical? Don’t take my word for it. These are probably the most rigorously evaluated investments the US government makes anywhere. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) got the top scores in the whole US federal government in 2016 for investing in what works.

Remember, emerging markets like India, the Philippines and Brazil have been some of the largest recipients of US foreign aid. It helped them overcome malnutrition, illiteracy, and natural disasters, then shifted to supporting the economic development that has brought billions out of extreme poverty and created new markets for US businesses, like the Trump Organization.

2. Leverage finance to build infrastructure – and do it better, smarter and cleaner than China

More than any previous President, Trump knows how to leverage finance to get infrastructure built. The needs – and the opportunities – are colossal: the global infrastructure financing gap is estimated at $57 trillion; as Tillerson himself has noted, ‘there are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world. They need electricity.’

Indeed, achieving universal access for the billion people worldwide who still lack electricity means using US resources to leverage much bigger pools of finance from the private sector and other donors. President Obama’s Power Africa initiative was enacted into law as Electrify Africa by the Republican Congress last year. This is a start – but China is still way ahead of us in financing African energy infrastructure. We can do it better, smarter, and cleaner.

3. Support fragile states – to keep America safe

If Trump is serious about keeping America safe and countering violent extremism, he needs to focus on the issues incubated or exacerbated by fragile states – from forced displacement to extreme poverty, pandemics and natural disasters, illicit trafficking and disenfranchisement.

By being more selective about what we do and where we do it, by responding coherently with all our tools, and by making what has worked elsewhere more successful in these places, we can (and must) get better. For example, small business investment and credit funds have boosted local entrepreneurs, created jobs keeping young men and women employed and out of trouble, and in many cases even returned money to the US treasury.

While Americans have long been united in the belief that it’s important to do good in the world, it’s also a matter of self-interest. As Secretary of Defense nominee General James Mattis said: ‘During my years of service, I witnessed just how essential working together with the State Department and USAID is to promoting America’s interests abroad, preventing conflict, and countering extremism.’

Plus, it saves the US lives and money in the long run. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said it best: ‘Economic development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.’

4. Invest in women and girls – it’s good economics

Investments in women and girls yield enormous returns. We know that every year of schooling for a girl increases her future income by 10%. Compound that annually and extreme poverty will be history in our lifetimes.

The Trump administration could transform the lives of millions of girls and women by investing in their health, education, and economic prospects.  This approach would get great support – as well as challenge some negative perceptions along the way.

5. Make US foreign assistance the best managed in the world

US development assistance could be the best managed and most effective in the world. Top management practices – being more adaptive, taking some risks, rigorously measuring impact, learning from success and failure – have taken hold in recent years.

But progress is slow (spoiler alert: these things are hard in bureaucracy). Put this into overdrive. Appoint someone excellent and respected to USAID. Consolidate how foreign assistance is prioritised and managed. Give them leeway to do things differently and make sure their voice is heard at the national security table alongside defence and diplomacy.

If Trump and Tillerson want a really good deal: American leadership is a great tool for spending other people’s money. US funds go further, faster, when working internationally with great partners. The Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has brought in nearly $30 billion from other countries and donors to spend on this US priority. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched by the US in 2012, garnered over $7 billion in commitments, much of it from the private sector.  If Trump sets his priorities and works the phones, he’ll be able do way more than he thought for less than he feared.

Being a great country is about doing great things. Humanity is on the cusp of what may be its greatest ever accomplishment – ending extreme poverty. Thirty years ago every person had a one-in-two chance of being born into extreme poverty. Today that number is down to one in ten! A man with towering ambition could double down and be remembered for making a decisive contribution to ending poverty on earth.

Alex Thier is Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London, and a former senior US government official.