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What Proposed Cuts to U.S. Foreign Affairs Budget Mean for Public-Private Partnerships

The analogy of foreign policy being a 3-legged stool is not new, but it is in jeopardy. As a member of the Washington State Advisory Committee for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, I recently had the opportunity to spend a week on Capitol Hill listening to foreign policy experts including Senator Tim Kaine (D) and Ted Yoho (R), the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and General Raymond Odierno. It was a full representation of the political spectrum—including foreign policy, development, and defense experts—all agreeing on one thing: the foreign affairs budget as proposed will be devastating to the U.S.’s ability to maintain its role as a moral leader in the world, and will harm both our national security and economic interests. 

The U.S. foreign affairs budget represents a mere 1 percent of our overall annual budget, yet the proposed cuts—30 percent of the total foreign affairs budget—are deep, disproportionate, and devastating.

I have spent years in countries like South Africa, Bangladesh, and Ghana gaining a first-hand understanding of the importance of U.S. leadership in global development. I’ve been in the homes of new mothers in the slums of Dhaka learning how digital tools could support them during their pregnancy, registered newborns into a mobile newborn registry system while sitting under baobab trees in the furthest corners of Ghana, and talked with women in South Africa who were able to protect themselves from contracting HIV/AIDS through the accessibility of sexual and reproductive health services.

With those experiences in mind, one of the most hopeful and enlightening moments of my time in DC was when Representative Yoho (R, Fla.), a House Freedom Caucus Member, said “I came to the Hill 4 years ago with the goal of eliminating foreign aid. Today, I know that it cannot be eliminated.”  In just 4 years, Yoho has gone from thinking foreign assistance was a waste of America’s resources to being one of its fiercest advocates.  I was also heartened by both the high-level military leaders, like General Odierno and the over 150 veterans in the room, who told story after story about the importance of “soft power,” and the short sightedness of pulling back on development assistance and our global leadership position. This retreat creates a vacuum that will be filled by actors such as Russia and China.

This shift would create “generational consequences,” not just for the United States but for the millions of people around the world who live in countries without the resources or democracy that the United States has worked so hard to create and nurture. U.S. leadership in innovation for social impact and our ability to employ diplomacy, development, and defense in concert with each other is the foundation of our moral leadership globally. When 2 of the 3 legs are effectively cut off, we are in danger of harming not only ourselves but also our ability to pave a path of equity to help others have healthier and fulfilling lives—something all humans deserve. We step back from our obligation as one of the most successful countries in the world to contribute to the lives of others. 

But, as I listened to Secretary of State Tillerson testify in front of the House Appropriations Committee, it became clear to me that making the case for balancing out defense with diplomacy and development isn’t the only case we need to make. 

Secretary Tillerson agreed that balance is needed and indicated the importance of America’s leadership globally. Yet, his message was that all we currently do—and more—can be done with 30 percent less. While I do agree that the landscape is shifting and we should explore new ways to effectively carry out our development programs, I’m not convinced that a 30 percent budget cut will get us there. 

There is much talk from this Administration about the importance of the private sector and public-private partnerships to address tough social issues. This is something I’ve been engaged in most of my professional career, and I continue to believe it’s the way forward. I also know that it’s not easy—it takes dedication and resources.

The first “P” in public-private partnerships is public (PPPs). It’s the engagement and leadership from the public sector that sets the foundation and leads the way in PPPs. This requires an ability to manage complex relationships, balance sometimes competing agendas, and work across sectors and industries to bridge what are, in many cases, deep differences in everything from expectations, ways of working, and regulatory issues. 

This is no small task and the reinvention or restructuring of our development sector to effectively engage in PPPs on a larger scale and as the foundation of our approach to development will require a deep commitment to what is often very difficult work, dedicated resources to see this work through, and perseverance from both sides of the PPPs—the public and the private.  

Kirsten Gagnaire

Managing Director