CQ Article Quotes MFAN Co-Chairs, Highlights Hill Aid Reform Leadership

Howard Bermanart.kerry.lugar.giA CQ article (full text below) published today, which quotes MFAN Co-Chairs David Beckmann and George Ingram, gives a rundown of how the leadership of Congressional leaders Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) has helped drive unprecedented progress on foreign assistance reform.  The missing ingredient that could push reform efforts over the top, according to the article?  Presidential leadership.

To join MFAN’s effort to urge President Obama to show leadership on foreign assistance reform and strengthen the U.S. commitment to development, please sign our Open Letter to the President, which has already been endorsed by more than 70 organizations and prominent individuals.

July 19, 2010

Backers Say Time Is Ripe For Foreign Aid Overhaul

By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff

The earthquake that slammed Haiti in January also rocked the U.S. Agency for International Development and its brand-new administrator, Rajiv Shah, who were promptly assigned to head up the civilian U.S. response to the disaster. The experience of the next several months afterward was eye-opening and “helped me shape my agenda for reform for the agency writ large,” Shah said in a speech last month.

That agenda is packed, given the multitude of challenges facing USAID, an agency once viewed as the country’s lead repository for expertise on international development. But its role has declined over the past decade into what the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrat Howard L. Berman of California, describes as “somewhat of a contracting agency where money passes through without a creative and well-staffed process.”

Shah says the rapid mobilization of USAID after the quake demonstrated that much of that expertise, although often dormant, still exists. The Haiti response, he said in an interview, shows there are “so many different ways where this agency could be nimble, it could move quickly, it could be focused on results,” as opposed to “just getting money out the door.”

Development experts say that while Shah is moving ahead with a package of operational changes at USAID, both President Obama and Congress will ultimately need to weigh in to better delineate both the over-arching strategy and the chain of command for U.S. international development operations in the 21st century. While there is a broad consensus about the general changes that need to be made, many of the more controversial details still need to be decided, including how the authority gets divvied up among the government agencies involved.

Congress is driving the reassessment of development policy already under way with a series of legislative initiatives from Berman and the two leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and top Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. But before progressing further, these lawmakers and development officials are waiting for the White House to deliver its vision for development as a pillar of its foreign policy, as well as demonstrate the political leadership to implement that vision.

Backers of a foreign aid overhaul say they will need buy-in across parties, congressional chambers and branches of government. These development boosters say that Obama elevating the role of foreign aid in places such as Afghanistan, combined with a group of allies in important positions — including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and top Senate and House leaders — makes the next 18 months a rare window of opportunity to reconfigure the architecture for international development to an extent not seen in half a century, since Cold War foreign aid policies were set by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. If they don’t succeed, backers of an overhaul worry that it could be another 50 years before they get as good a shot.

Beyond the Crisis

A disaster like the quake in Haiti “plays to AID’s strength, because it has a very strong, positive history in responding to humanitarian emergencies,” says George Ingram, a former deputy assistant administrator at the agency who’s now co-chairman of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a coalition put together two years ago to advocate for aid changes.

“What doesn’t get attention is those 50 to 60 countries that are relatively stable, not-so-well- or moderately well-performing, and are really the countries that are struggling for how to do development better,” Ingram says. “That’s sort of the day-to-day meat and potatoes of USAID.” The challenge, he says, is to put in place a structure that lifts some of the stifling bureaucracy and allows USAID “to do what Shah wants to do — be more creative, be more responsive, be more analytical, engage your local stakeholders more.”

Shah, who before joining the Obama administration spent seven years working on global economic development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, expressed the desire to introduce “some of the flexibility we have in our humanitarian relief operations,” such as in Haiti, more broadly across the organization. “I would like to replicate that capability throughout our agency,” he says.

Flexibility is exactly what Berman is hoping to achieve with a rewrite of foreign aid policy that he and his committee staff have been working on for the past two years. After a series of meetings and discussions with lawmakers, government officials and representatives of nonprofit aid organizations, Berman unveiled an initial draft this month. If Democrats hold the House this fall, he hopes to win passage of the legislation next year.

Drafters are hoping to write a bill that, in the words of one Berman committee aide not authorized to speak about the matter, would embody “a new grand bargain” of “accountability in exchange for flexibility.” The president would have to provide more detailed information about his international development plans and set ways to measure their results, the aide says, and in exchange Congress would “lighten up on the very specific directives and earmarks.”

The trick will be in getting all involved — lawmakers, the White House, the State Department and the non-governmental organizations — to endorse that system. Of course, the legislation would have some specific mechanisms for limiting congressional earmarks for specific projects — by creating, for example, accounts that would be reserved for certain countries or types of aid, such as for farmers or HIV/AIDS eradication.

But mostly, the drafters are hoping an overhaul of the system will by itself reduce the inclination to earmark. “When you have a coherent, intelligent process, where there is a rational examination by the agency, a rational process of determining some national priorities and a built-in flexibility to allow a significant amount of resources to be shaped by the mission and the country,” says Berman, “I think the temptation to do this becomes less.”

Forging Consensus

Such a grand bargain would also require an unprecedented level of coordination between the executive branch and Congress. “The biggest thing that needs fixing is to get the Congress and the administration maybe not on the same page but on the same playing field,” instead of everybody “going at it in their own little way,” says Ingram.

The Obama administration is in the midst of two major policy reviews — the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review being run by the State Department, and a National Security Council review of foreign aid, both of which have dragged on longer than initially intended.

The administration kick-started the reviews last year after Berman wrote language into the State Department reauthorization bill that would mandate the processes. The bill quickly stalled in the Senate after passing in the House, but it’s clear that “Congress got this process going,” says David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger advocacy group Bread for the World, and Ingram’s co-chairman at MFAN.

Until both policy reviews are complete — likely by early fall — the administration has declined to provide any formal feedback to Congress’ activities to overhaul the foreign aid process. But development experts are starting to get restive, with several former USAID administrators issuing calls in the past few days for faster action.

One thing they would like to see the president outline is an over-arching rationale for American foreign assistance programs. “Only the president can clarify the mission,” says Gregory Adams, aid effectiveness director at the global humanitarian group Oxfam. Obama, he says, needs “to define what we are going to do and what we’re not going to do and how we make choices about that.” The legislation from Congress, Adams says, can then provide “the statutory framework to support that.”

The same groups of people are also looking for the president to take a stand on the long-running debate over the relationship between the State Department and USAID. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the aid agency was effectively subsumed more deeply under State. But for years, there has been a debate over how much autonomy USAID should have — something that has played out most recently over Caribbean earthquake relief.

“The Haiti response has made clear a lot of the divisions going on between State and USAID over who should be in charge and what should happen,” one senior congressional aide says. This split in authority was evident in something as simple as the State Department’s briefing last week on the six-month anniversary of the quake. Cheryl Mills, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff and lead counselor on issues surrounding Haiti, fielded questions while Shah played backup.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was so concerned about the lack of a clear government head of the Haiti rebuilding effort that it proposed, as part of a relief measure it approved in May, establishing a new coordinator position under Clinton to oversee the government’s policies.

Clinton’s involvement in development, as well as that of some of her key deputies — including Jacob J. Lew, her deputy secretary for management who was tapped last week to become White House budget director — is lauded by many development boosters, but it has added heat to the turf battle still playing out.

State has already signaled its displeasure with part of Berman’s plan. An internal department e-mail, sent earlier this month to solicit comments on the chairman’s draft, noted it would create a development policy committee that included the secretary of State “only as a co-equal member as opposed to placing her as the lead, as had been earlier requested.” Other provisions “do not vest authorities in the secretary, as had been requested for comparable provisions.”

Berman has held off taking an explicit position on just how the relationship between State and USAID should break down. But, he says, “As a general principle I want to elevate the role of development, and therefore I want to elevate the role of AID.”

Clinton, he acknowledged, is “a big friend and big booster of development,” but to make the changes enduring, “you can’t make decisions based on any one person that is in any one position at a given time.”

FOR FURTHER READING (Note: a subscription to CQ is require to access additional reading.): Lew, p. 1759; fiscal 2011 foreign aid spending, CQ Weekly, pp. 1629, 1274; State Department reauthorization (HR 2410), p. 44; fiscal 2010 foreign aid spending (PL 111-117), p. 28; background, 2009 CQ Weekly, p. 1303; Foreign Assistance Act (PL 87-195), 1961 Almanac, p. 293. The Senate Foreign relations’ Haiti relief bill is S 3317 .

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