What Tillerson’s Leadership Could Mean for US Development Policy

January 24, 2017

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted yesterday to give the greenlight to Rex Tillerson’s nomination for Secretary of State. Assuming he is confirmed by the full Senate—which at this point is all but certain—Tillerson will play a critical role in shaping US foreign policy from the helm of the State Department with important implications for global development. While, like other nominees, some of Tillerson’s stated positions appear out of sync with those espoused by President Trump, it’s worth examining where Tillerson is on the record when it comes to issues of development and humanitarian relief.

Prior to his recent nomination hearing, my colleague Beth Schwanke outlined some fundamental questions about the incoming administration’s approach to global engagement, emphasizing where we hoped Tillerson’s testimony might shed some light. Here’s a rundown of what we learned.

Will the isolationist rhetoric that featured so prominently in the campaign be translated into administration policy?

While he more than once repeated Trump’s campaign promise to put “America first,” Tillerson emphasized the need for greater US leadership in the world in his opening statement before the Committee. Pointing to an evolving global landscape with considerable threats to the United States, Tillerson clarified his belief that “to achieve stability that is foundational to peace and security in the 21st Century, American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted.” He praised our armed forces, citing US troops as a key global advantage, but also acknowledged a history of US moral leadership. In response to repeated questions, Tillerson noted the value of having a seat at the table during international conversations on combatting climate change. Though he was careful to avoid any commitment to climate action.

Is development still a pillar of US foreign policy?

Tillerson acknowledged a role for US development assistance but it’s unclear whether he views development as a “central” or “core” pillar of foreign policy, as have the most recent holders of the office. He did trumpet the unique model of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)—and the agency’s potential to spur economic growth.

Will reform become a not-so-coded word for cuts?

In response to pleas from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) for a robust US Agency for International Development (USAID), Tillerson indicated his support for a comprehensive review of the agency’s programs and pointed to the opportunity presented by a new joint strategic plan due in 2017. A review is a great idea—in fact, Casey Dunning and Ben Leo proposed a top-to-bottom look at USAID’s programs in our volume The White House and the World. USAID has been moving in the right direction—increasing evaluations in number and rigor. But in addition to measuring individual program success, the agency would be well served by adopting a method for measuring programs across sectors. A comprehensive look could lead to more informed allocation decisions, ensure value for money, and even contribute to a better understanding of the appropriate tools of engagement.

But, as Tillerson pointed out, the need for humanitarian assistance is only growing, leaving less with which to achieve development objectives. Using review recommendations to improve outcomes and safeguard taxpayer dollars makes good sense, but with foreign aid comprising only around one percent of the budget, the starting point should not assume cuts.

Are big structural changes at State or our development agencies afoot?

Tillerson offered little insight into if (or how) the incoming administration might alter the State Department or the broader US development apparatus. His remarks on growth of State’s org chart suggest some adjustments are likely, but Tillerson avoided concrete pronouncements citing only his natural tendencies to scout inefficiencies. Tillerson’s praise of MCC might be read as suggesting a bigger role for the small, growth-focused agency—a proposal that has been a fixture of Republican budget plans in recent years. MCC’s model has some great features (read more here), but it inherently limits the agency’s partners and partnerships—presenting a number of challenges to significant scaling up.

Evidence-driven policy or deal-making?

Tillerson’s references to aid as an instrument spooked some observers. During an exchange with Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Tillerson spoke favorably of tying aid to “obligations,” and using assistance to advance US foreign policy interests as well as recipient country governance. His example—requiring governments to simplify the process of obtaining formal identification for citizens—seemed like the kind of policy reform goal often incorporated in US development programs. Still, many development scholars would caution against layering conditions on aid, which can exhaust a recipient country’s institutional capacity rather than strengthen it.

On the flip side, Tillerson shouted out county ownership—in the context of MCC’s work—which is appreciated as important to sustainability and aid effectiveness.

Hints of development-related presidential initiatives or priorities?

Again, Tillerson offered little insight into the development priorities of the incoming administration. His own views on the benefits of foreign assistance aimed at women’s economic empowerment came through during an exchange with Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH), where he relayed his experience witnessing the impact of investments made through the ExxonMobil Foundation.

If he’s looking for ideas—Tillerson would be wise to take note of issues raised by seasoned lawmakers on the Committee. One area ripe for bold leadership is strengthening global health security. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-A) signaled his interest in establishing an emergency fund that would bolster US preparedness to ward off future threats.

Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) also raised an issue worthy of attention and in need of strong political will—the reform of the outdated US system for delivering international food aid. The evidence shows that shifting away from in-kind food donations would increase efficiency and save lives.

If Tillerson is indeed confirmed, here’s hoping he looks to build on the strong bipartisan tradition that has served US interests by backing global engagement to promote development and address humanitarian crises.


*CGD receives funding from ExxonMobil foundation for women’s economic empowerment research.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.