By Steve Coll
February 22, 2017 It seems likely that humanitarian aid to countries like Haiti will decline during the Trump Administration, but by how much is less obvious.PHOTOGRAPH BY GAËL TURINE / AGENCE VU / REDUX
It’s not evident that we will, at least for as long as Trump is in the White House. “America First” may be a basis from which to attempt Great Power strategies and realpolitik bargaining, but it is not a slogan that offers hope to countries languishing at the bottom of world poverty tables. (Haiti ranks a hundred and sixty-third out of a hundred and eighty-eight countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, which considers income, life expectancy, educational attainment, and health measures.)
Last week, on a visit to Haiti, when I asked human-rights activists, filmmakers, and writers about Trump’s election, they sounded as disoriented as many Americans seem to be. This is so even though Haitians have been schooled in cynicism about Washington. United States Marines carried out an oppressive occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. During the Cold War, with a few exceptions, American Presidents accommodated successive, murderous Duvalier regimes, until Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was overthrown, in 1986. More recently, following the earthquake of 2010, which killed more than two hundred thousand people and left a million and a half homeless, an outpouring of American aid provided critical resources for recovery, but the effort failed to deliver on many fronts and seems to have left the country’s political economy even more riddled with corruption than it was before.
Many among Haiti’s élite and diaspora harbored ambivalence about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and particularly about the prospect of a Clinton family restoration. A brother of Hillary Clinton became involved financially with a gold mine in Haiti, a deal he developed after making connections at the Clinton Global Initiative, the annual philanthropic fund-raising convention staged by the Clinton Foundation. Fairly or not, this contributed to doubts about the family’s motives, although there was no accusation of wrongdoing. The skepticism extended to Haitian-American voters in Florida, although it isn’t clear how significant that was to Hillary Clinton’s loss in that state. Yet the election of Donald Trump is hardly a welcome turn of events. Among other things, Trump’s ascendancy has sent a foreboding signal that international norms are in flux, and that the prospect of corruption and authoritarian rule has become more acceptable. The most common joke I heard in Haiti was “Now you know what it’s like to have a crazy President.”
The deeper question is what a Trump Administration will mean for those living in extreme poverty worldwide. There aren’t many policy specifics to go on yet; addressing global inequality is not a staple of Sean Spicer’s gladiator-style briefings. In its inheritance of schools of thought about foreign aid, the Administration represents a forced marriage between the nativist, inchoate Trump and a Republican Party increasingly divided between internationalists, who have supported expansive public-health and other assistance to the world’s poor, and fiscally conservative isolationists, who want to cut foreign-aid budgets and much other government spending. It seems likely that aid to countries like Haiti will decline during the Trump Administration, but by how much is less obvious.
One set of clues lies in the early statements of Trump Cabinet figures notionally in charge of foreign policy. These are not encouraging.
On February 2nd, the day after he was sworn in as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson addressed the State Department’s workforce in the atrium of the department’s headquarters, in Foggy Bottom. His remarks seemed barely distinguishable from the sorts of talks Tillerson routinely gave to employees at ExxonMobil, where he spent the entirety of his professional life, rising to become chairman and chief executive.
Tillerson told career diplomats that he sought “optimal outcomes” and would seek to deploy resources “in the most efficient way possible.” He didn’t pause to discuss humanitarian aid, human rights, or democracy promotion. He said that he wanted to enunciate, initially, some “principles” of his tenure.
The first he mentioned was the physical safety of the State Department’s workforce. This is a major priority at ExxonMobil, an engineering company that daily conducts risky operations on offshore platforms and in refineries, and has a relatively strong safety record. Of course, it is important to keep American diplomats abroad safe—Benghazi, in 2012, was just one reminder of that—but many career foreign-service officers believe that a tunnel-vision-like fixation on security since 2001 has undermined their ability to interact with the foreign populations they are supposed to assess, support, and influence.
Tillerson went on to emphasize “accountability,” “honesty,” and “respect.” These are bromides that would not be out of place at either ExxonMobil or the State Department, but they suggested little about the actual conduct of diplomacy or the reordering of priorities. Tillerson urged the assembled diplomats to take inspiration from a slogan of Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots: “Do your job.”
It would be surprising if Tillerson became an effective champion of global-poverty relief while serving Trump. Yet the extent to which the Administration will slash or reorient foreign aid is a question that involves many other actors in Washington, particularly in Congress. Unfortunately, that body does not house the same Republican Party that backed George W. Bush’s Medicare expansion, a decade ago, or Bush’s ambitious program to combat AIDS and other public-health challenges in Africa.
Earlier this month, Bill Frist, the Republican former Senate Majority Leader, wrote in the Times of “a growing concern that President Trump may cut back, or even eliminate, programs that have played a critical role in fighting diseases worldwide.” Frist defended the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, which Bush inaugurated, in 2003, and Obama continued, on the only grounds that seem to be persuasive to Trump: self-interest. He pointed out that public-health programs “make us safer by making afflicted countries stronger, more stable.” Yet during the transition, the questions Trump’s aides asked of State Department employees left the impression that they had doubts about the value of all aid to Africa, for example, and that they questioned the relevance to U.S. interests of African security.
PEPFAR is a success, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Bush Administration. Yet any honest defense of humanitarian aid must account for other manifest failures. These will provide openings for Republican budget cutters. In 2010, for example, U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal inadvertently introduced cholera to Haiti, which had never suffered from the disease—a catastrophe that has so far claimed at least nine thousand lives and perhaps many more. Hundreds of Haitians continue to contract the disease each month. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Trump’s Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, called for accountability in the crisis, which the U.N. has so far elided. Yet if accountability is just an excuse to eviscerate the U.N.’s budget, it will have disastrous consequences in poor nations.
One morning last week, I travelled to Les Cayes, an area in the south of Haiti that was devastated last autumn by Hurricane Matthew, the worst storm to strike the country in half a century. I met with Haitian agronomists and agricultural-education experts at a threadbare N.G.O. that helps local landowners shift to more profitable and sustainable farming strategies. It was an inspiring group; the N.G.O. is rooted in the community and has been at its work a long time. The staff persists amid deprivation on the far frontier of climate change and inequality. Progress is slow, reversals commonplace. Much of the funding comes from non-governmental philanthropies, which allows some shelter from government corruption. The setting offered a reminder that the world’s poorest, most fragile communities are well accustomed to terrible, terrifying governments. Some of them, as in Les Cayes, have constructed resilience strategies not easily broken by passing storms. For the next four years, at least, they will need them.