Donald Trump’s threat to withhold US aid from countries voting in favour of a UN general assembly resolution rejecting his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been described as a “travesty” by experts.
On Thursday, an emergency session of the UN general assembly voted 128-9 against Trump’s declaration, pronouncing it “null and void”. There were a total of 35 abstentions.
The motion, which mirrored the one drafted by Egypt and vetoed by the US in the security council earlier this week, called on the Trump administration to withdraw the move. Egypt, which received $1.2bn (£896m) in US funding last year, would be particularly vulnerable were Trump’s threat carried out.
However, analysts said that, in practice, it wouldn’t be easy for the Trump administration to cut aid.
Much of US aid funding is earmarked by Congress for specific countries and issues. This year, lawmakers pushed back on the president’s “America First” budget proposals, which advocated slashing foreign aid budgets by more than 30%.
Alex Thier, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute, said the threat to cut aid to countries for political votes at the UN was “extraordinary”, but would be hard to push through.
Thier said: “Unilateral cuts to a specific country are not that easy. He can’t just say, ‘Right, Ethiopia doesn’t get any more’. If you look at the proposed foreign aid cuts, what happened in reality was that Congress and the administration ended up negotiating packages in specific countries – and the cuts were not as deep as Trump had threatened.”
Thier said it was important to distinguish between different types of aid streams – military and security assistance, which goes to governments, and development aid, which goes to the neediest and is not supposed to be allocated based on politics. A third stream is humanitarian aid, which is required by law to be provided on the basis of need.
Thier said: “Fundamentally, some aid is very much about military and security policy. You are saying, we are supporting you because you care about policies we care about. Cutting this aid, for instance because of human right violations, in the case of Egypt, which has happened in the past, is not unheard of.
“Then you have development aid, which does not go to the government but to the most needy. The idea that you are going to punish the people in Rwanda or Nepal for a vote that the government takes in the UN, when that money is about fighting poverty, helping girls go to school, or fighting climate change, would be a travesty.”
Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington DC, said the threat could have an impact on US-Saudi relations, which are already under strain because of criticism of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen.
He said: “Trump and Haley’s latest bluster about punishing other nations for insubordination is unlikely to sway many votes in the general assembly. But it could affect relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, a leader of the block of Arab and Muslim states bringing this resolution to a vote.”
Earlier this month, the US president called for a ceasefire in Yemen and warned the Saudis that it would cut off aid to Saudi Arabia if the blockade of food, water, fuel and medicine that has pushed 7 million Yemenis to the brink of starvation, did not end.
Weisbrot said: “Saudi support for the UN resolution could create more friction with Trump and make it more likely that he will yield to the increasing pressure from Congress, or that more congressional Republicans will join with Democrats and use the 1973 War Powers Resolution to force the cut-off of US military involvement. That would be the best possible outcome of this fight.”
While development specialists agreed that Trump’s warning, which appeared to be directed at UN members in Africa, Asia and Latin America, would be difficult to put into practice, any impact would be concentrated on those already suffering economically.
Tim Jones, an economist at the Jubilee Debt campaign, said that many developing countries had already been hit by a series of economic shocks, such as the drop in commodity prices in 2014, which reduced the coffers of countries dependent on fossil fuel and metals.
Jones said: “What’s troubling for many of the potentially hit countries is that many of them have been affected by economic shocks over the last few years. That’s the case for many on the global south. Counties like Sierra Leone and Liberia, some of the poorest countries, and they are struggling after Ebola.
“Most of government debt is paid in dollars, so the rising value of the dollar and increased interest rates in the US has hit them too.”
Among countries potentially worst affected include Zambia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad, Jones said.
Women’s groups criticised the threats to aid, which come after the US President’s much criticised reinstatement of the “global gag rule”, restricting aid to groups advising on abortion.
Jonathan Rucks, director of advocacy at PAI, a global advocacy group for reproductive health, said the threatened cuts, like the expansion of the global gag rule, would “inflict pain on the poor and vulnerable around the world”.
He said: “President Trump needs to go back to Diplomacy 101. A knee-jerk reaction to cut off foreign aid from countries who do not philosophically align with us would be short-sighted and undermine our own development and security interests.”
Serra Sippel, president of the Centre for Health and Gender Equity, said: “This is yet another example of the US government abusing its power in the world. It harkens back to the days of George W Bush, when the US tried to strong-arm countries by withholding aid as a means to extort support for an anti-women, anti-reproductive agenda. Thankfully, at that time, other governments did not cave to the cruel US agenda. We want governments to stay strong and to remain uncorrupted by US government policies that undermine human rights.”