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Where do Trump and Clinton stand on foreign aid?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, 2016 Presidential election. Wikimedia

Election day is upon us.

In an election season marked by scandal and focused on personalities, policy issues took a back seat. And foreign aid policy is in the way, way back. Even in a more civil campaign season, it is not a top issue in presidential elections.

Foreign aid represents roughly 1 percent of the federal budget. Politicians in both political parties support it, leading to a relatively steady budget year to year. Candidates are rarely asked about it, nor do they bring it up in speeches across the country.

However, it is possible to get a sense of how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton view foreign aid by looking closely at their speeches and statements over the years.

Donald Trump

Trump, a newcomer to the political scene, has said little about foreign aid. His policies are grounded in placing American interests at the forefront. He campaigned with promises to renegotiate trade deals and not engage in nation building. The premise is that federal funds are used to the detriment of Americans.

“Our best input to helping with global issues is to make sure that the United States is on the proper trajectory economically,” Trump told Science Debate. “We cannot take our place as world leader if we are not healthy enough to take care of ourselves. … A prosperous America is a much better partner in tackling global problems that affect this nation achieving its national objectives.”

He expounded on the idea during an interview with the Washington Post editorial board. The poor state of U.S. cities are an example of failing to take care of the people in the country, he argued. And went on to say money that can help build schools and improve education here is going to places like Iraq to build schools that are eventually blown up.

“We have no money for education because we can’t build in our own country,” he said. “And at what point do you say hey, we have to take care of ourselves. So, you know, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that but at the same time, our country is disintegrating, large sections of it, especially in the inner cities.

There is one foreign aid program Trump likes: the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). President George W. Bush established it, and it has strong bipartisan support in Congress. A voter asked whether he would double the number of people receiving HIV/AIDS treatment by 2020, during a rally in New Hampshire last year.

“Yes, I believe so strongly in that, and we’re going to lead the way,” responded Trump.

His attitudes about trade and globalization provide a better window into how a Trump administration might handle foreign aid. The pursuit of globalization is taking away jobs from Americans, Trump said in his stump speech. He told the joke that it used to be that Mexico had dirty water and Flint made cars, now it is the opposite. Better trade deals and investments at home are the way to turn that back around, he claimed.

“It is necessary that we invest in our infrastructure, stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges and schools – and nobody can do that better than me,” said Trump in a June announcement.

It is likely that a Trump administration would not recommend an increase in the foreign aid budget. It is unclear whether it would make cuts, but given the support from Congress to maintain current spending levels, it may not change. However, where the money would go and what it would fund could shift to support U.S. trade priorities.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton has a long record on the issue. She served in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of state, where she oversaw the U.S. Agency for International Development. If she wins, international development could rise as one of the top issues for the White House.

“Development was once the province of humanitarians, charities and governments looking to gain allies in global struggles,” she said in a speech at the Center for Global Development in 2010. “Today it is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative – as central to advancing American interests and solving global problems as diplomacy and defense.”

Like Trump, Clinton spoke about the issue through the lens of U.S. interests. She differs in that she argued that foreign aid is beneficial to both the people it helps and Americans.

“It is within our national interest to think beyond our borders, and through our leadership, do everything we can to foster peace, health and security around the world,” she told Science Debate.

There is also agreement between the candidates regarding the priority of global trade. The two oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal primarily between the U.S. and Asian countries that President Barack Obama is trying to get passed and Clinton once supported. There is no indication that Clinton wants to renegotiate current trade deals. But there are other avenues for supporting trade, including partnerships between the government and the private sector.

Clinton’s time as secretary of state saw a major expansion of programs that worked with the private sector. Power Africa, Feed the Future and other programs launched during her tenure leveraged U.S. foreign aid investments to open doors for major corporate partners.

The expansion of U.S. foreign aid through the Truman administration’s Marshall Plan is one example of how it could succeed, Clinton said in a 2011 speech to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition Conference. Rebuilding Europe cost the equivalent of more than $110 billion. She conceded that it is a lot of money, but the improvements made by European countries justify the investment.

“Now, our aid did not simply help these countries build their middle classes, although it certainly did. It created trade and consumption that helped us build our own middle class. It provided growing incomes and a sense of hope that we were able to fulfill by helping both Europe and South Korea transform themselves into strong, thriving democracies. Those were good investments,” she said.

The current state of U.S. foreign aid is the direct result of Clinton’s time as secretary of state. It is likely that a Clinton White House would see a doubling down on the programs established in recent years. USAID may get special attention from a Clinton administration, which some people believe would tie closely to national security interests.


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]