Kolbe, Beckmann and Ingram: U.S. Foreign Assistance Needs Further Reform

In times of plenty and peril over the past 60 years, America’s global leadership has been best exemplified by the helping hand that we have offered to people at the mercy of extreme poverty, disease and tyranny in the darkest corners of the globe. Our nation has saved and improved millions of lives by extending that hand and by focusing on the principle that effective development assistance is squarely in our national interest.

Recent budget battles in Congress have made it seem as though we have to choose between continuing or abandoning this leadership because of America’s real and pressing deficit issues. But the facts tell a somewhat different story. We spend a little over 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign assistance and far less than that on programs that are focused on promoting sustainable development and reducing global poverty. Drastically reducing or even eliminating this money would have little effect on our deficit, but it would undermine the significant political and economic progress that has been made in the developing world — progress that reduces our vulnerability to threats that know no borders.

Republican and Democratic administrations spanning more than a half-century have recognized the strategic importance of development assistance and worked with Congress to strengthen our assistance programs. The shared goals have always been to save lives and help countries move along a path of stable and responsible growth. For example, U.S. assistance clearly helped transform South Korea into a dynamic, democratic partner on trade and security — and now a donor itself to poorer countries.

The bipartisan commitment to development has strengthened over the past decade, with policymakers coalescing around the idea that common-sense reforms can make U.S. foreign assistance even more effective. The reforms have driven results that can be measured in the millions of lives saved and enhanced.

During the Bush administration, the United States launched a major initiative to respond to the pandemic of global AIDS — an initiative that has helped bring lifesaving support for nearly 5 million people in Africa and beyond. A companion program to fight malaria has provided protective bed nets to 500 million people.  President George W. Bush proposed, and Congress enacted, legislation to create the Millennium Challenge Corp. to support poor countries with good governments that are demonstrably fighting corruption. Seventeen African countries have achieved substantial economic growth and progress against poverty over the past decade, partly because of assistance from the United States and other industrialized countries that is linked to measures of good governance.

These unprecedented results led bipartisan policymakers to push for even more aggressive, top-to-bottom reforms of U.S. foreign assistance. Both chambers of Congress moved bipartisan legislation in 2009 to urge additional action from the Obama administration. Last fall, President Barack Obama released a landmark new development policy, which focused on economic growth, selectivity about who gets U.S. assistance, attention to the priorities of the people we are trying to help, strong roles for the private sector and civil society, and strengthening and streamlining our foreign assistance agencies.

The Obama administration has also launched new global initiatives on agricultural development and public health that adhere to these reform principles. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are undertaking their own broad internal reforms.

But, there is still much to be done. We need to:

• Make the delivery of assistance more efficient by eliminating wasteful practices in our food aid programs.

• Bolster accountability across our assistance programs by expanding new initiatives such as the USAID Dashboard, which allows people to access never-before-public information about funding and results, to include our AIDS initiatives.

• Give reform durability by forging bipartisan agreement on key reforms that can be codified in law.

• Increase local ownership of, and responsibility for, assistance programs by making sure decisions on development also reflect local priorities and realities, rather than just a Washington perspective.

• Ensure assistance is more strategic by better defining the differences between development-focused efforts and national security-focused efforts, and making changes to the way we plan, fund and execute programs as a result.

• Utilize administrative and legislative tools to fully implement USAID’s internal reforms.

Some of this work can be done by the administration on its own. But Congress needs to help. Instead of arbitrarily slashing effective development assistance programs, lawmakers should work together across the aisle to maintain the positive reform trend of the past decade. At a time of huge global challenges that defy short-sighted solutions, we must make sure we are using our foreign assistance programs to drive the best results possible for the people we are trying to help and the taxpayers who support these efforts.

Former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates. The Rev. David Beckmann is the president of Bread for the World. George Ingram is co-chairman of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. They are co-chairmen of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.