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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.

The Obama administration, through the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development of 2010, has made local ownership a core piece of its development agenda. In 2010, only 9.7 percent of USAID funding directed in missions was awarded to local institutions. Today, that number is 14.3 percent and the goal is to increase local awards to 30 percent of outlays by 2015.

Local ownership is critical, but host countries must also contribute greater resources from their own budgets. A recent report by Oxfam and Development Finance International found that developing countries are on track to miss every domestic spending target of the Millennium Development Goals. The global economic crisis is partly to blame as it led to revenue losses of $140 billion in poor countries. However, in 2012, developing countries will only be spending 0.5 percent of gross domestic product more than in 2008 and much of it is because of expensive borrowing. There are some bright spots, including Ethiopia’s decision earlier this week to allocate $38 million from its treasury to support nutrition programs. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that in 13 countries more people are newly receiving treatment than are newly infected from HIV and AIDS. However, he also cautioned that in order for progress on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to continue, host countries will have to assume more responsibility, as the model shifts “from merely providing aid to co-investing in host countries’ capacity.”

The true opportunity at hand is for Obama to provide concrete evidence to Africans and citizens of other developing countries that the U.S. is invested in their well-being as a partner, not a patron, as he has said in the past. At the same time, he can send a strong signal to multilateral partners and the American public that accountability and results from both donor and recipient countries are at the core of the U.S. development enterprise.

The president should rightly highlight during his trip to Africa a decade’s worth of global progress on development, with millions more being lifted out of the depths of extreme poverty, so much so that the World Bank has set a target of ending extreme poverty by 2030. But he should also focus his remarks on reform, transparency and local ownership, where on the home front, he can make good on those commitments by working with Congress to pass sensible reform legislation, including the bill to-be-introduced by Poe and Rubio.

The Rev. David Beckmann, a 2010 World Food Prize laureate, is the president of Bread for the World. George Ingram is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman from Arizona, is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates. They are co-chairmen of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

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