By Mark Green, Ambassador and Congressman (ret.)
I recently began posting a series of pieces with some of the reasons why I believe (a) America needs foreign assistance reform and (b) Conservatives should take up the cause. Done right, foreign assistance can play a crucial role in our foreign policy. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t “done right” or, at least, done as well as it could be.
Here are my first four reasons:
Reason 1: Our current foreign aid system is organizationally incoherent.
Reason 2: We need to reform the system to make our precious taxpayer dollars go much further.
Reason 3: Foreign assistance reform is a great opportunity for Conservatives to reaffirm values and initiatives we care about.
Reason 4: Simply put, Conservatives (and Republicans) have a long history of standing up for EFFECTIVE foreign assistance.
And now . . . Reason 5: The combination of fragmented authorities and overlapping bureaucracies in our current assistance framework is watering down public diplomacy efforts.
Foreign assistance is a crucial part of public diplomacy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks eloquently about the need for “smart power” in these challenging times. Her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, emphasized the ability for “diplomacy by deeds” to shape our image in far off lands. Whatever the terminology, the concept is straightforward: America enhances its image, and its prospects, when it is seen to be helping those in need. Words are the currency of traditional diplomacy, but tangible deeds can be more eloquent than any cable or speech or public statement.
Here’s another way of looking at it: the late Jack Kemp, a Conservative hero to many (myself included), liked to say that “people need to know that you care before they care what you know.” Foreign assistance projects do just that, opening hearts and ears to the American message.
However, the deeds-based approach is only as effective as the messaging effort that follows it. We must make sure that people know the good work that is being done and that it ultimately comes from the American people. Unfortunately, our archaic patchwork of fragmented authorities and bureaucratic structures often undermines that effort.
These days, there are approximately 12 departments, 25 agencies and 60 separate government offices involved in administering foreign assistance. With overlapping jurisdictions, conflicting rules and procedures, and differing organizational cultures, they often confuse those they mean to serve. They may even unintentionally mislead the public into thinking that one or more of them are independent or even non-governmental. After all, what logical government would use handfuls of different agencies to work in a single country . . .perhaps even on a single project?
One symptom of this bureaucratic labyrinth is what I refer to as the “battle of the logos.” And it’s one of the many annoyances that Conservatives can fix when they take up foreign assistance reform.
The Battle of the Logos
In my first weeks at post as Ambassador to Tanzania, I attended numerous ribbon-cuttings for U.S.-funded health clinics, school dormitories and other projects only to see banners with countless logos and acronyms plastered all over. Some of the acronyms were alien to me – from organizations I hadn’t heard of before. As a group, they were sometimes so large and colorful that they took up more space and attention than the actual “message” – something noticed by many of the Tanzanian officials in attendance. Even if it meant distracting from that message, the organizations involved apparently wanted to make sure that their “brands” were noticeably on display.
In some cases, the named organizations on display were private ones with whom the U.S. government had contracted to implement or administer programs. However, the bold banners and shiny plaques made it appear that it was their own money that was building that clinic or paying for those books. My guess is that a good many of the Tanzanians in attendance had no idea that it was American taxpayers, not the named organization, that had been so generous. In fact, I can recall an event in which a Tanzanian official went to great lengths to thank a university for its great generosity in launching a global health project – even though that university was actually just implementing a grant it had received from the National Institutes of Health.
The Battle of the Government Logos
What was even more frustrating was the hodgepodge of government agency logos that adorned each banner and brochure. Just as with non-governmental logos, they seemed to take up too much space and distract from any underlying message. More significantly, some of the logos and acronyms were obscure enough that observers couldn’t have known they were actually referring to the U.S. government. Most Americans don’t know what acronyms like MCC, FSA, PEPFAR, PMI, USADF, USTDA and others stand for. What are the chances that my Tanzanian friends wouldn’t recognize them?
Like most Conservatives, I believe that while foreign assistance should help those in need, it must also help America’s image and interests on the world stage. We support foreign assistance because it is the right thing to do, but also because – done right – it is the smart thing to do. But again, how “smart” can a project be if its funding source is hidden by bureaucratic branding and self-promotion?
As ambassador, I tried to push back against all of this. First, I issued an embassy-wide directive creating a unified logo — an American flag with the phrase “From the American People” in Kiswahili — and called for it to be on every press statement and event banner. I asked my team to send that message out to our implementing partners as well, and spoke about my “rule” at a USAID sponsored planning session with those partners. I let everyone know that I wouldn’t attend ribbon cuttings or groundbreakings unless there was a banner behind me with our new logo design.
I also created a business card-sized piece of literature — one that could be folded out into a small “table tent” – which bore the new logo and then summarized, by the numbers, just how much assistance American taxpayers were providing in Tanzania. Every member of my embassy team, American and Tanzanian, was supposed to carry it with him or her so he or she could answer the question, “What is America doing to help?” Each member was supposed to leave one of these cards at their stops when they traveled in country.
A Good Job for Conservatives
It’s important to realize that our assistance network is made up of lots of good, dedicated professionals who are devoted to lifting lives and building communities in the countries where they serve. It’s the system that is the problem.
In my battle of the logos example, some of my embassy team pointed out to me that federal offices and agencies often had rules that attempted to govern and even mandate the use of their brands in the field. Many federal agencies had sent out strict guidelines governing the use of their logos in these situations. In some cases, they sent out “rules” directing not only the use of their logos, but the size and position of the logos relative to other agencies’ brands.
Policymakers and opinion leaders back here in the States, especially Conservatives, need to get involved because bureaucracies never reform themselves . . . not willingly and not sufficiently. As Ronald Reagan liked to say: “Bureaucrats do cut red tape – they just do it lengthwise.”