MFAN PRINCIPAL: Momentum Will Feed Hill’s Shot at Fundamental Reform

by Noam Unger, Brookings Institution

The administration continues to signal interest in reforming U.S. global development policies and operations, as evinced by President Obama’s statements last month about the need to make our development policy more coherent and our aid more effective, as well as Secretary of State Clinton’s constant drumbeat about strengthening development capabilities.  Aside from growing concerns about why an administration so committed to development has not nominated its development leaders, Americans and our friends around the world should be asking: Will reforms reach the level of fundamental change that is needed?

That’s where Congress can step in, because multiple fundamental problems of the U.S. foreign assistance system lie in its underpinning legislation.  Recent months have demonstrated a groundswell of bipartisan support for a modernization of foreign assistance that raises the status and effectiveness of global development within the U.S. government. It’s true both the Republican and the Democratic party platforms included language along these lines during last year’s election, but since then further activity in both the House and the Senate has demonstrated a willingness to make progress this very year.  Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has crafted two pieces of legislation that are highly relevant: a State Department authorization bill that touched on development reform and successfully passed in the House, and a bill to initiate foreign assistance reform which has attracted 100 bipartisan cosponsors. Momentum is not limited to the House.  Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) joined with Ranking Minority Member Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Senators Menendez (D-NJ) and Corker (R-TN) to introduce legislation to revitalize U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and make U.S. foreign assistance more accountable, and they’re getting other bipartisan cosponsors.  It’s not surprising that key members of Congress are taking reform seriously.  By now, many of them have seen this head spinning “chart from hell,” depicting the chaotic web of foreign assistance legislation, directives, objectives and bureaucratic homes across the government (it was developed at Brookings by Lael Brainard who has since gone on to be Obama’s nominee as Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs).

The larger game – the rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) – still looms this fall.  Berman has committed to repealing the outdated 1961 FAA and his experienced staff is beginning the process of actually drafting a rewrite.  At a Brookings speech in May, Kerry also announced his intent to revisit the FAA this year “to streamline outdated laws and heavy bureaucracy” and to ease the current burden of “confusing directives, reporting requirements, and procedural roadblocks.”  Rewriting the FAA is an indispensible element of truly fundamental reform.  The current legislation that governs and serves as the foundation for our foreign assistance was developed almost half a century ago.  It has been amended to death and now runs hundreds of pages, containing a dizzying array of unprioritized objectives, as well as countless restrictions that impede much needed adaptability at the field level.

Ultimately, enactment of a new FAA should make it clear that U.S. foreign assistance aims to alleviate poverty and human suffering, support the emergence of capable partners, and mitigate threats.  The authorities and means to do so should also be clear, which involves rationalizing the bureaucracy and modes of operating.  And, on the development front, all is for naught unless reforms lead to efficient, effective and adaptive assistance in partnership with other development actors – including multilateral organizations, other government donors, international business and civil society, and, most notably, the recipients.

Rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act is no easy political feat, but that’s why Congress needs to push ahead, taking advantage of the current window of opportunity.  Reforming the statutory roots of U.S. foreign assistance – especially our development policies and operations – is both the right thing to do in terms of morality and the smart thing to do in terms of U.S. leadership and national interest.  Do others agree?

Noam Unger, a principal member of MFAN, is a Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development program and Policy Director of Brookings’ Foreign Assistance Reform Project.

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