Greetings! This is Michael, AIDemocracy’s new Communications Intern, reporting on an event I attended last Thursday, 3/18, at the Center for American Progress (CAP). The CAP is a progressive non-partisan organization, “dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action.” U.S. foreign assistance is a complex issue drawing on decades of post-World War II policies that are becoming increasingly out of date in the modern global landscape. According to the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a reform coalition whose mission is to help build a safer, more prosperous world by strengthening the United States’ ability to alleviate extreme poverty, create opportunities for growth, and secure human dignity in developing countries, it is essential to update the government’s outdated system of foreign assistance to meet the needs of the 21st century.

The CAP’s event addressed this very issue. It suggested the importance of developing a dynamic new strategy for U.S. foreign assistance to help stimulate more sustainable security abroad. The morning comprised a keynote speech by California Representative Howard Berman (D), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a panel discussion by four notable U.S. Foreign Policy experts, including a past USAID Admin and a former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan.

Congressman Berman’s keynote raised some interesting points and questions. His talk highlight three main areas of emphasis for U.S. and global security, and suggest three ways to go about achieving that security. Mr. Berman differentiated between National Security, Human Security, and what he called Collective Security. Of paramount importance was National Security. By ensuring the safety of our nation, the U.S. safeguards its own citizens. This enables us to extend our security blanket to our allies and those peoples and nations in need worldwide, ultimately bringing about the idea of a Collective Security. Much more can be said on the synergistic relationship of these three types of security, but not from me without sounding too much like a text book…

With his security framework in place, Congressman Berman moved on to his outline of what changes were in order for U.S. Foreign Policy in general. To begin with, efforts had to be made to prioritize, integrate, and coordinate the various branches of the national strategies for foreign aid. This meant a clear demarcation of the limits and responsibilities of the Department of Defense (DOD), State Department, and USAID when dealing with foreign aid and assistance.

Secondly, there is an essential need for a thorough modernization effort of the U.S. foreign aid system. The Congressman cited the crucial need for the replacement of the fifty-year-old U.S. Foreign Assistance Act. Enacted in 1961, the Act allowed for the creation of an agency to administer economic assistance programs. Two months later, USAID was founded. Since that time, the bill has been tweaked in parts each year, but many believe that it is out of date and that U.S. foreign assistance needs a complete overhaul.

Finally, the third tenet of the Congressman’s talk was for the U.S. government to reengage the international community by taking the reins on foreign assistance and lead by the power of its example. He drove home what I’d call the most powerful point in his speech when talking about this issue: the military prowess of the U.S. is by far the most advanced and dominant military in the entire world. But fewer and fewer of the world’s problems are solvable by our strong military. Thus, it is time to build the world’s most advanced development strategy to affect the sort of positive change necessary to foster that ideal of collective security stressed at the onset of the keynote speech. Though Congressman Berman has a lot to say about what needed to be done, he provided no timeline for any concrete changes. He suggested that he would like to propose legislation on a new foreign assistance act this year, but that in reality, it would have to be a priority of 2011 – were he to win re-election this November.

Following the keynote, there was a brief question and answer period that help to fuel the ensuing panel discussion. The most interesting topic raised was the issue of the increasing role of the military and the DOD in dealing with development in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Peter McPherson, President of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and former USAID Admin under President Reagan, suggested that “All Change is Political.” His assertion raised the question of whether or not there should be development training for military personnel if they would be responsible for affecting ‘political change.’ Another interesting suggestion came about from Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, President of the Middle East Institute and former Ambassador to Pakistan. She cited Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” proposal, which rewards public school districts in states with creative and effective models for improving school performance. Ambassador Chamberlin suggested a similar a model to create a sort of incentives program to muster up some bottom-up reform in the developing world. The idea seemed to entice Mr. McPherson and spurred some heated debate.

In the end, interesting discussion was had and important ideas were shared. For a complete video of the days events, click here.

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