September 8, 2011

Reforming Foreign Assistance

By Joel Paque

For years, the holy grail of foreign assistance reform has been a re-write of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, widely seen to be outdated and cumbersome.  After 2008, then-Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-CA) began to work on such a reform bill.  Control of the House of Representatives switched in 2010 before it was completed, but now-Ranking Member Berman released a draft today intended to contribute to the future debate on reform.  While he and his staff know their draft is unlikely to become law, the draft makes a significant step forward in thinking on what such a reform could and should entail.

“Aid is not a gift,” Congressman Berman said in his introduction of the Global Partnerships Act of 2011 today at an event co-hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution. “The United States provides foreign assistance because it serves OUR interests.  Helping countries become more democratic, more stable, more capable of defending themselves and better at pulling themselves out of poverty is just as important for us as it is for them.”

In today’s climate where most of the foreign assistance conversation is about cutting budgets, the Berman draft bill focuses on the structure and rationale of foreign assistance, driven by fifty years of experience in what makes programs more efficient, more impactful, and more lasting. Berman said he hopes some of the proposals in this bill will serve as the foundation for future reforms or will be taken up in part.  Indeed some smaller pieces of reform, such as the recent amendments to the State Authorization bill Congressman Poe made to strengthen monitoring and evaluation, have already garnered bipartisan support.

This draft, while still a far ways from binding legislation, marks an important first step towards making U.S. assistance as efficient as possible. But it is important to keep in mind, as Congressman Berman pointed out, that we do not have the luxury of slowing down our commitment to our current programs, which have already seen improvements through the USAID Forward initiative and the QDDR. In an ideal world we could “hit pause,” evaluate all the necessary reforms, and then resume our investments in development and diplomacy.

But in reality, we face every day threats from weak and fragile states, instability derived from famine and disease, and the threat or terrorism by individuals who have fallen susceptible to radicalization due to the lack of economic opportunities. It is vital that we continue to provide adequate resources to our development and diplomacy programs through the International Affairs Budget while we undertake the process to implement necessary reforms. As Congressman Berman said today, “Today, even more than in 1961, our health, our security, and our prosperity are advanced by a world in which basic human needs are met, fundamental freedoms are respected, conflicts are resolved peacefully and the world’s resources are used wisely.”