April 18, 2014

Two Things We Can do to Reform Foreign Assistance

By John Glenn

The dust was still settling after the departure of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN)’s founding co-chairs, Gayle Smith and Steve Radelet, when I joined the network in 2009.  Both had gone into the Administration with the goal of implementing MFAN’s original policy vision, and their influence was evident in the first-ever Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, raising the question, where should MFAN go from there?

Since then, MFAN has been a valuable behind-the-scenes player on Capitol Hill, helping to identify and build bipartisan support for elements of the global development reform agenda. The draft bill on transparency led in the House by Representative Ted Poe from Texas is one great example (a bill that would codify many of the reforms that have been made in strengthening monitoring and evaluation and which has a draft Senate counterpart led by Marco Rubio). In the absence of the holy grail of re-writing the outdated Foreign Assistance Act, these efforts have been critical in keeping the conversation moving forward, even amid the partisanship of today’s Congress.

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[/blockquote]This week, MFAN launched a new policy paper, “The Way Forward,” laying out an agenda for the next two years focused on two mutually reinforcing issues in global development – accountability through transparency, evaluation and learning; and country ownership and implementation of the priorities and resources for development. Much has changed in the world since 2009, and these two issues offer a smart focus on where progress could be made. They reinforce the recognition that private sources of capital (investments, remittances, private philanthropy) into the developing world have grown over the last forty years to dwarf official assistance, which now must leverage rather than substitute for private capital.

Both of these issues build on progress made by the Bush and Obama Administrations, but more must be done to turn them into better practice. There are promising signs. The Millennium Challenge Corporation was recently ranked the most transparent assistance agency in the world, and USAID has undertaken reforms that have started it moving up in the rankings.

While country ownership is sometimes misunderstood as giving away control over our foreign assistance, most agree that sustainable progress will only be possible when countries take responsibility and ownership of their own development. The United States can (and must) help, but should do so in partnership with governments committed to reform and helping those governments built the capacity to build better lives for their citizens.

At a time when public opinion polls have shown that some Americans want to turn away from the world (although recent events in Ukraine have challenged this wisdom), the Administration and Congress should be on the same page — that global development is not just charity, but advances our national interests in a safer, more prosperous world. And we can demonstrate those results. MFAN’s policy paper lays out two ways in the coming years to push Congress and the Administration and make that case to the American people.