Yesterday, I barely managed to squeeze into the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on “The Case for Foreign Aid Reform: Foreign Aid and Development in a New Era.”

The room was packed with young people, and spectators overflowed into the hallway. Senator Robert Menendez jokingly asked Dr. Jeffrey Sachs if he had invited his university classes to attend. As pleased as I was that the Senator noticed our presence, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he misunderstood our reason for being there—we may be interning on the Hill or for advocacy organizations in D.C. this summer, but we are also voters, taxpayers, and activists. We packed into the SFRC hearing like sardines because we are interested, informed, engaged, and passionate about politics, not for extra credit.

The truth is, older generations still fail to take young people seriously. It’s the fault of both sides; Menendez needs to realize the significance of young people’s presence at that hearing, and we students need to make more calls, write more letters, cast more votes, attend more meetings, and raise our voices outside Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the blog world.  The social networking sites our parents hate may serve as a valuable tool to connect us with the rest of the world, but affiliating with groups or causes is nothing more than mere affiliation if we don’t use that network to act. As more and more of us study abroad and gain first-hand perspectives on the world’s challenges, we’re exposed to innovative and collaborative approaches to global development and security. Young people packed the SFRC hearing because we want to know whether our government—the country with the richest economy in the world—is pulling its weight and supporting these solutions.

Wednesday’s SFRC hearing was designed to address this question:  Are U.S. foreign assistance programs working?

Literacy rates have risen, anti-retroviral drugs are more readily available, and great strides have been made in the fight against polio and other preventable diseases, but poverty, inequality, starvation, and disease continue to plague the developing world. While it’s tempting to blame paltry investment in poverty-fighting development assistance for this (the U.S. lags far behind other industrialized countries in terms of percentage of GDP), developmental economists, humanitarian aid agencies and students alike have started to question the overall effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid (“Moyo Ignites Debate with ‘Dead Aid'”).

As a result of these debates, more and more activists, development practitioners, and politicians are beginning to see that the success of foreign aid investments depends as much on implementation strategy as on baseline dollar amounts.

At the hearing, Senator John Kerry, Senator Richard Lugar, Peter McPherson (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities), economist Jeffrey Sachs (The Earth Institute), and Reverend David Beckmann (Bread for the World, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network) discussed the needs of USAID and other official foreign assistance distributors (of which there are many) that would need to be considered in an effective bill for U.S. foreign aid reform. Not surprisingly, opinions differed. McPherson, a former USAID Director, stressed the need for better evaluation, technology and career leadership. Sachs argued for more funding, greater scale of projects, and adherence to the MDGs, but with clearer targets, better metrics and more specific strategies. Beckmann countered Sachs, calling for fewer and more flexible goals that would enable individual countries and communities to choose the most effective development strategies for them and their unique context. Those in attendance agreed, however, that foreign assistance policy reform is long overdue.

The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which still regulates U.S. foreign aid today, was intended to consolidate and streamline foreign aid distribution under the US Agency for International Development. Nearly fifty years later, USAID oversees the distribution of less than half of our foreign aid, thanks to presidents and politicians who strategically sidestepped the Act to achieve their own aims. With so many hands in the foreign aid cookie jar, USAID now lacks the resources to properly monitor its own activities or guarantee accountability.

Moreover, the Foreign Assistance Act, now littered with amendments and wildly outdated, fails to articulate a cohesive strategy for fighting poverty and contributes next to nothing to aid effectiveness.

In 2002, the Bush administration declared “development” the third pillar of US foreign policy, equal alongside defense and diplomacy. As a result, aid has increased significantly in the last few years. The problem is, there is no sign that these increases in funding have contributed to long-term development.

The question for our generation then becomes, “How do we make aid work?” Though there was some discussion at the hearing of building human resources for long-term development, there was little talk of progressive development solutions that empower women, youth, workers, farmers, and communities. In my opinion, that’s precisely the kind of discussion that young people are most able and well positioned to contribute to.  We just need to learn to use our global awareness to actually shift the policy debate and put more development options on the table.

An overhaul of any government system is intimidating, but the House and Senate are already taking the first steps to reform U.S. foreign assistance policy.

To show your support for these initiatives, you can add your name to MFAN’s open letter to President Obama and ask your congressman to co-sponsor H.R. 2139, the “Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act of 2009.”

Watch for the Senate bill on foreign assistance reform in coming months and get involved with the discussion. What development efforts have you seen in your studies and travels that really work?

Watch for AIDemocracy actions and events related to foreign assistance reform, and read more about the issue here:

Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network

Oxfam America Aid Reform Campaign

Oxfam America Brochure about US Foreign Aid

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