Budget Cuts Present Opportunity for US NGOs and Private Sector
Since taking office earlier this year, President Donald J. Trump has not wavered from his campaign pledge to focus primarily on a domestic agenda. Perhaps the strongest indication yet of this “America First” agenda has been the administration’s budget proposal, which includes unprecedented cuts for the two institutions most responsible for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid: the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Before Trump took office, Freedom House – an organization that analyzes civil liberties and political rights across world – noted an 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Despite the need for continued aid, the U.S. State Department now faces a nearly 30 percent reduction in funding. Likewise, USAID is facing potentially dramatic cuts to development and economic aid programs. While distressing to those who have advocated for robust American assistance, these budget cuts are coming and will place increased importance on the role of private sector investors and NGOs.
While Trump seems intent to focus on a domestic agenda and shift American policy away from the global stage, it is worth recalling that U.S. engagement in Africa, particularly on the human rights and democracy front, had diminished before Trump took office. Under President Barack Obama, for instance, the U.S. Congress slashed funding for democracy and governance programming in Africa by 47 percent, with the lion’s share of funds only going to a handful of perennially unstable countries, including South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In light of this notable shift in U.S. foreign policy, US-based NGOs working on African issues can be capitalized on by private donors, while working side-by-side with the Administration, USAID and State Department to create pillars of democratic stability. Together, these vital sectors and institutions can collaborate in new ways to help address the root causes of Africa’s widespread democratic retreat: the increasing need to support free, fair and credible election processes and boost assistance to ethical and pro-reform leaders. On the latter front, these visionary leaders, and their allies in civil society, have been fighting uphill battles against highly entrenched, well-financed, and often corrupt forces without the requisite support that is needed to advance positive social change.
In the Gambia, for example – which had been dominated by the Yahya Jammeh dictatorship for over two decades – civic leaders were vital in aiding the formation and ultimate victory of an historic democratic coalition that swept the previous regime from power in a December 2016 election. Crucially, advocacy efforts on the election kept international attention on the country when Jammeh, in true dictator fashion, attempted to cling to power despite being defeated at the polls.
Abusive and unaccountable autocrats, in Africa and elsewhere, grow strength in the shadows and are emboldened by darkness, which is why they fear social media, a free press and an empowered civil society. Having worked on political campaigns around the world – including in the flawed 2008 and 2013 elections in Zimbabwe – we know and understand well the consequences of not having a global spotlight and the pressure that often accompanies it, which forces leaders to abide by the will of the people.
One helpful way of looking at the proposed budget cuts under President Trump is to envision the increased opportunities for the private sector to get more involved and help spread the seeds of good governance and accountability. Indeed, the next few years will be pivotal for the continent and crucial for the advancement of democracy writ large.
In Kenya, for example – East Africa’s linchpin country due to its economic and political clout – elections loom this August. The specter of the violent 2007 elections and its aftermath, which brought along ICC indictments against the current President and Vice President, remain at the forefront of many minds. Reports of an uptick of violence already have Kenyan citizens on edge. There is a dire need for the world to rally around a free, fair and transparent election process in the coming months to ensure that the country provides a positive example for others across the continent.
While we should collectively strive and advocate for a peaceful election in Kenya – and elsewhere in Africa – that alone is not enough. It never was. Peace in the electoral process is an absolute bare minimum, not an end in itself. Kenyans deserve better, and so do millions of other citizens voting in critical elections in the coming months; for example, Liberia this October and Angola, Zimbabwe and Cameroon next year. Each of these elections represents a vital fulcrum upon which stability in their respective regions will ultimately depend. There is now an opportunity for NGO’s with private funding – from individuals, corporations and other institutions – to step up and help place Africa on a positive trajectory while also demonstrating a much-needed commitment to democratic governance and ethical leadership.
America’s commitment to democracy in Africa has come with a fair share of missteps. Nonetheless, activists and leaders on the front lines routinely tell us that the collective weight and influence that the U.S. government, in collaboration with NGOs and the private sector, can exert is vital to holding African leaders accountable. What is more, these efforts will remain essential to the evolution of democratic elections in Africa, and the free market economies and strengthened rule of law that flourish as a result.
More than ever before, citizens in Africa are yearning for democracy and ethical leadership. Instead of bemoaning the budget cuts to foreign aid, let us seize the opportunity for the private sector and NGOs to step in and fill the void. A more hopeful and prosperous future for citizens across Africa, as well as the long-term security of the United States, will depend on these private sector commitments to embolden democratic voices and advance sustainable social change.
Joe Trippi is Co-Founder of Vanguard Africa and President of Joe Trippi and Associates
Christopher Harvin is Co-Founder of Vanguard Africa and a Partner at Sanitas International