Post by Alex Simon, George Washington University

When Lily first invited me to a discussion on foreign assistance reform on Capitol Hill, I must admit my expectations were low.  Not only had I come to think of government approaches to global development as weakened by their bureaucratic processes and special interests, but looking briefly at the history of attempted foreign aid reform, there hasn’t been a lot of progress.

To my surprise, the meeting, convened by House Foreign Affairs Committee Senior Staffer Diana Ohlbaum last Tuesday, was filled with optimism and a sense that the time to modernize US foreign assistance has finally come.

The topic of discussion:  “Discussion Paper #1: Development Assistance Reforms” released by Chairman Berman’s committee staff on October 6th of this year.  Currently, foreign assistance priorities are driven by Washington, not by the needs of the countries receiving the cash and long-term development success is compromised by annual appropriations and Congressional earmarks.

The paper outlines 10 reforms directed at fixing these bureaucratic barriers and balancing what are often perceived as competing objectives.  According to the paper, the following reforms could

“Provide greater support for country-owned plans while serving U.S. national interests; allow greater input from USAID field missions while advancing policy priorities; offer greater flexibility while demanding greater accountability; respond to areas of greatest need while rewarding good performance and addressing security threats; and achieve a measurable impact that leads to sustained economic growth.”

The proposed reforms are as follows:

  1. Set aside the vast majority of economic assistance for country-based strategies.
  2. Create a flexible formula for country allocations.
  3. Make a clear distinction between development assistance and strategic assistance.
  4. Develop and use coordinated, concise and results-oriented strategies.
  5. Obligate development assistance up-front for the entire 3-5 year period.
  6. Reserve 5-10% of all country budgets for unanticipated contingencies.
  7. Revitalize an interagency coordination mechanism.
  8. Obtain Congressional buy-in for country and sectoral strategies, rather than individual projects.
  9. Provide public access to real-time information about outlays and program results.
  10. Prioritize interventions that build local capacity.

The idea is to make project planning more local, reporting more efficient, and ensure that USAID missions build local capacity.  It’s almost refreshing.

The room packed with representatives from different aid organizations and think tanks (Academy for Educational Development, CARE, Center for Global Development, American Jewish World Service, International Women’s Health Coalition, Advocates for Youth, etc.).  While questions were still tough and targeted, most were preempted with excited (and relieved) thanks to Chairman Berman and his committee staff for championing this reform and actually listening to the concerns of those in the field.

Diana chuckled, pointing out that, in comparison to her previous efforts at foreign aid reform (she’s been at it since the 80s) where she might have only seen 5 faces in the room, the current effort has to its advantage an actively engaged public, a highly relevant context in light of continued US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and actual momentum on Capitol Hill.

But, she was also clear to say that in order to succeed, she needs our help educating Americans and Members of Congress on the importance of these reforms.

Wouldn’t you say it’s time to step out of Cold War politics and modernize our foreign assistance dollars from a tool against Communism to a tool for long-term sustainable development and organic community-driven processes?