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On Development Policy, Congress Looks Functional | Commentary

Something peculiar has happened around President Barack Obama’s trip to Africa: a famously dysfunctional Congress actually sent a constructive, bipartisan message to the president about the future of engagement with the continent and other developing countries.

Two weeks ago, a group of Republicans and Democrats led by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, sent a letter to the Obama administration calling for more aggressive efforts to bolster foreign assistance transparency. In the letter, they argued that transparency provides “the critical information needed to achieve better coordination with other donors, avoid duplication and waste, and provide Congress the means to oversee” U.S. foreign assistance programs. Then last week, an amendment to the House farm bill authored again by Royce and Engel, which would have overhauled the U.S. food aid system to purchase more resources locally and build greater self-sufficiency in poor countries, came within a surprising inch of passing. And, thanks to the leadership of Poe and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., bipartisan, bicameral legislation will soon be introduced to require greater transparency and accountability in foreign assistance.

The Congress is overdue in its focus on foreign assistance reform, which the Obama administration has admirably invested in to build on efforts by the administration of George W. Bush. But a late start is better than no start at all, and progress is there for the taking. Transparency and local self-sufficiency and ownership are the most important elements of reform to advance.

Transparency is the touchstone of effective development. In bilateral and multilateral collaboration, it is a critical component for maintaining trust between partners and a clear focus on results and accountability. Even more importantly, it is the bridge between development programs and the citizens those programs purport to empower. Fortunately, in 2011 the Obama administration took a number of important steps to strengthen transparency by joining the International Aid Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership. The administration also introduced the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, which has finally begun to streamline data and centralize information across all U.S. agencies involved in aid, though more compliance is needed. The U.S. Agency for International Development has played a key role as well. The agency recently completed an unprecedented analysis of U.S. aid through 186 in-depth evaluations to develop the proper metrics for measuring the effects of assistance.

In Africa, Obama can tout these improvements to show that the U.S. is committed to being a better development partner. At the same time, the president would be wise to urge African leaders to make greater commitments of their own to transparency and accountability. This is critically important for a continent that is just beginning to experience democracy and in a world where a lack of accountability is at the root of widespread discontent and upheaval.

Turning transparency into impact requires additional action in other areas, and one of the key pathways to effective development that has emerged is increasing local ownership of the development process, which leads to a greater sense of responsibility on the part of both governments and local civil society to deliver results and, over time, better results.

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