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7 questions we’d like to ask in the next presidential debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

The dust is starting to settle after the first U.S. presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Moderator Lester Holt asked few questions, giving the candidates a lot of latitude. As a result, most of the 90-minute debate was spent trading barbs and evading deeper policy issues – especially foreign affairs.

In a little more than a week they will meet again for a town-hall-style debate. The audience at Washington University in St. Louis will have the opportunity to directly ask the candidates questions. It’s unlikely that they will go beyond their talking points and their attacks on each other, which, unfortunately, means a lot of questions will go unanswered.

The following is a list of questions, we’d like to see discussed:

What will you do to stop the brutal campaign in Aleppo, Syria, that is killing civilians with reckless abandon?

Syrian forces resumed bombing the embattled city of Aleppo immediately after the collapse of the recent cease-fire. An estimated 250,000 people are trapped in the city. The city embodies the civil war at its absolute worst.

Americans finally began to understand the totality of the violence when the video of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting dazed and bloodied in the back of an ambulance after a bombing, went viral. More than a month has passed since the video made the rounds and the same kind of attacks are terrorizing the roughly 100,000 children in Aleppo.

Russia and the U.S. are at odds. Talks to provide humanitarian assistance to the city are fragile. A U.S. proposal for a seven-day cease-fire was countered by Russia with a 48-hour “humanitarian pause.” A deal may come together to provide some relief, but the attacks will resume. It is highly doubtful that the issue will be solved by the end of the year – meaning the next president will face this problem on his or her first day.

Will you take executive action on the Helms Amendment?

U.S. money cannot be used to provide abortion services abroad, per the Helms Amendment. Few Americans are aware of this rule. Advocates want to see it overturned. While that will take congressional action, there is something the next president can do: clarify that the ban does not apply to cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.

The Obama administration balked at the opportunity to issue such guidance. The amendment, passed 1973, states that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” Currently, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said funding is not to be used for abortions full stop. A clarification making exceptions for instances not related to family planning would make a small but significant difference.

Clinton pledged earlier this year to issue such a clarification if elected. Trump is not on the record regarding the issue.

Do you support food aid reform?

The current food aid system is slow, inefficient and wasteful. Former USAID head Raj Shah endorsed changes that would allow the local purchase of food, rather than transporting it from abroad. There has been little progress toward that goal, partly due to infighting among aid groups and the surprising power of the maritime lobby, which would like to protect the requirement that half of all food aid must be sent on U.S.-flagged ships.

It is a bipartisan issue that could make both candidates look good. Procurement reforms could save some money and lead to more food aid for more people. It is a relatively easy way to curb government inefficiency without touching the budget.

Do you support the U.S. ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement?

The historic climate agreement is gaining steam nearly a year after it was finalized. At the current rate, enough countries will ratify the plan to limit global warming and reduce carbon emissions. Climate change is an issue Obama keeps discussing, and the U.S. ratifying the agreement would be a massive win.

The problem is, the U.S. is reluctant to sign onto international deals like this. The Obama administration sidelined Congress by saying that he does not need its approval to ratify the agreement. Trump supposedly would back out on the deal if elected. Asking about the deal is a good way to bring up climate change as well as international negotiations, an area where the candidates differ significantly.

Do you believe international development is a wise U.S. investment? Will you make cuts to the foreign affairs budget? If so, what programs or areas?

Taking up about 1 percent of the U.S. budget, spending on foreign aid is small enough to ease the deficit but big enough to have a global impact. In recent years, the White House budget proposal called for a modest cut to the foreign affairs budget. Congress overruled and maintained the current spending levels.

Asking what the candidates would do with the money is the best way to get them to talk about foreign aid. It is unlikely either could significantly increase or decrease current spending levels, but their attitudes on spending priorities could affect State Dept. and USAID programs. We know for the most part what Clinton would do since USAID fell under her purview as secretary of state, but Trump’s ideas are not all that clear.

How would you deal with the underlying issues that contribute to the flow of migrants from Central and South America?

Controlling the entrance of migrants and refugees is one of the major issues in the election. Trump presses the idea that if he wins, Mexico will pay for a wall to be built along its border with the U.S. It is a divisive idea that wins Trump as much support as derision. It is also not a solution to the problem.

People from Central and South America are illegally entering the U.S. because of a combination of problems at home and opportunities in the U.S. There is hard calculation by migrants that it is worth risking jail, deportation or death to cross the border.

Solutions require considering immigration policies, violence prevention and poverty alleviation. Barriers and deterrence measures already exist, yet people keep trying to get into the U.S. Higher walls and more security make it harder to cross the border, but programs that target the underlying causes would bring prosperity and safety to the region.

Why do you not mention poverty and development when talking about fighting terror?

The “War on Terror” is an oft-mentioned topic in the campaign. When asked about it, the underlying assumption is that the candidates will talk about security and the military. Issues like poverty and inequality are all but ignored. Yet, whether it is radical Islamic terrorists in the Middle East or homegrown terrorists in Europe and the U.S., one of the common themes is disenfranchisement.

Ending terrorism as we know it also means improving opportunities for people around the world. Humanitarian aid and development investments are vital investments to fighting terror – the military alone cannot solve the problem. Both candidates need to talk about how they would direct programs and funds that will get at the root issues, not just drone strikes.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]