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Reforming Foreign Aid

On April 23, the House  Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing to discuss reforming foreign assistance. This is important because of the extensive criticism that currently exists about US foreign aid and its inefficacy in reaching those people who need it most. For example, after the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004, the US responded quickly, but perhaps not most effectively. Villagers in Thailand received unsolicited boats from the U.S. government and other aid agencies. However, according to one villager, “We got too many boats and there are not enough people or fishing spots to go to...I think there are more boats than fish.” According to OXFAM, much of the problems with US foreign aid arise from the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. This act is 1500 pages long with 33 goals and 247 directives, many of which conflict with each other. According to Brookings, the US system is simply too outdated and convoluted with red tape. They report that there are 50 separate units that share responsibility for aid planning and delivery in the executive branch, with different objectives ranging from narcotics eradication to biodiversity preservation. Clearly, with so many different agencies with different goals, it is impossible for them to coordinate and act effectively. Instead of modernizing the very infrastructure of aid, we have responded by creating even more organizations - the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the State/F bureau. Meanwhile, though funding for aid programs have increased, "the number of civilians with the training and experience to direct and implement assistance programs effectively has diminished sharply."  Brookings proposes to reform the current system by replacing the 50 offices currently managing aid with one agency with the authority and operational capability to carry out its missions effectively. They also suggest 5 strategic aid priorities: to Elevate Development and Diplomacy, Invest in Operational Civilian Capabilities, Support Country Ownership, Achieve Coherence among Policies, and to Rationalize Agencies and Clarify Missions.

Though I agree with the work these organizations are doing, and that it is important for aid to be delivered more effectively, there is one thing Brookings overlooks. Brookings argues that

In a world where remote threats can rapidly metastasize into immediate emergencies, the fight against global poverty has become a fight of necessity—because national security demands it no less than personal morality...Helping the poor gain access to shelter, medicine, sustenance, education, and opportunity does more than make Americans feel good: it makes the world feel good about America....When the United States leads in helping lift the lives of the poor, we enhance our own influence and authority in the world community – building support for U.S. interests in other areas. We need a national security strategy that deploys foreign aid as a key instrument of American soft power and a key determinant of the face of America seen around the world.

Though all of these things may be both true and important, I think these comments reflect another fundamental flaw with US foreign aid. The goal of these reforms and the goal of foreign aid in general is still to benefit the United States. By delivering foreign aid, we are "making Americans feel good and making the world feel good about America." We are also "enhancing our influence" as the dominant world power, and using foreign aid as an important national security strategy. I think that with this sort of mentality that continues to focus first on US interests, it will be difficult to enact any type of foreign aid structure that genuinely benefits the people. If our intentions are not genuine, this will inevitably be reflected in the work we do. I believe that with more honest intentions, it will be much easier for an effective foreign aid structure to be created - for its foundations will be built upon the interests of those who need aid most.
 

 

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Comments

Kudos on a good summary of the case for foreign aid reform. I think, though, at some point we need to accept that -- for Congress to support foreign aid -- we do need to make the point that this is in our national interest. To my way of thinking, the distinction is more between aid that is directly tied to our on-going political and security interests -- e.g., Pakistan or Egypt -- and aid that is truly "developmental," aimed at overcoming constraints to poverty alleviation. Recipient countries know and appreciate the difference, and their distinction between the two goes a long way toward explaining its effectiveness, or lack thereof.

Bread for the World Institute will be publishing a briefing paper on this subject in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

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