By Assia Hamdi (Arabic and History)
Efforts have been underway to link the US Government’s foreign aid expenditure with interests related to religious freedom. The second half of 2019 has seen the development of these agendas coalesce in various ways.
From 16 -18 July, Secretary Mike Pompeo attended the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial in Washington DC to promote religious freedom internationally. The conference gathered 1000 civil and religious leaders as well as 100 foreign invitees. Subsequently on 24 September, President Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly highlighted America’s “effort to defend and promote freedom of worship and religion.” Recently, on 27 October, the USAID administrator Mark Green released a statement on linking religious freedom to the right of financial aid.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has mapped out the countries most likely to be affected by a new drafting of aid-dependent religious freedom stipulations. These include ally Saudi Arabia in Tier One, grouped with Iran, North Korean, Russia, China and Syria. Tier Two includes India, despite recent tensions between Muslims and Hindu’s in Kashmir, and Egypt, regardless of current treatment of Coptic Christians. Egypt and India have been strengthening their political ties with the US, which is undoubtedly to their benefit with regards to this new proposition. Egypt was the second largest recipient of foreign aid in 2017 and 2018 after Israel.
Experts on US aid warn that this approach to administering aid could harm political relations with allies. Although the Trump administration is in the early stages of drafting this order, many questions remain as to whether this will include military aid, how this will interfere with current business agreements, and if it will enable preferential aid treatment.
The approaching 2020 elections make some believe this is a political maneuver to garner Evangelical support for Donald Trump’s re-election. The proposal is led by Vice President Mike Pence, who is himself a conservative Christian. The Trump administration has been searching for ways to decrease US expenditure since they came into office. In 2017, Trump stated that funding should be cut from “countries that hate us.” In 2018, the US cancelation of funding allocation to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) affected 5 million people relying on its life-sustaining services.
Israel has consistently been the top benefactor of foreign aid since 1985. Sums from the US to Israel have averaged at around $3 USD billion per year. However, Israel has not been mentioned in any of the Trump administration’s conversations related to aid expenditure scrutiny. In light of the strikes on Gaza in November, Bernie Sanders was attacked by Israeli lobbyists and officials for suggesting that US aid should be directed towards Palestinians instead of Israel.