Modern Legislation: Moving from Policy to Practice

One Small Reform With a Large Impact:  Eliminate Development Sector Earmarks

Below is the second piece in our Modern Legislation blog series from Connie Veillette, MFAN Principal and Director of the Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Initiative at the Center for Global Development. The series explores just one pillar of MFAN’s updated reform agenda, From Policy to Practice. Former Republican Congressman Mark Green wrote the first piece in the series about how reform offers a unique opportunity for Congress to lead. Stay tuned for more!


In the fiscal year 2010 foreign operations appropriations bill, Congress earmarked nearly 70% of funding for bilateral economic assistance (Title III).  The health and democratic governance received 36 percent of total aid funding; agriculture, education, infrastructure, and the environment all received less than 6 percent each.

The problems are threefold.

  • The practice of earmarking causes inefficiencies in the management of funds.
  • Success is measured by how much money is spent rather than on outcomes.
  • And, it runs counter to the goal of country ownership.

It takes months for USAID and the State Department to sort out the various sector, program, and country directives (in consultations with the Appropriations Committees) and transform the bill into a workable plan for obligating funds.  That means that only a few months remain in each fiscal year to spend those funds in a responsible and efficient manner.  The fact that foreign assistance programs operate in often complex environments makes this a very difficult task and one fraught with the temptation to let speed of disbursement trump other measures of effectiveness.

This is no way to run a budget, but it’s not all Congress’s fault. Well-intentioned advocacy groups lobby Congress to protect, or increase, funding for the sectors in which they work.  Foundations often encourage their grantees to seek a greater share of aid funding for this or that program.  Success is measured by how much money is appropriated rather than on achieving desired outcomes.

Lost in the process is the concept embraced in the President’s policy directive on development and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, that is, recipient countries should guide their own development and donors should work with them to support these home-grown development strategies.   Working with countries to fund their priorities for food security or job growth is a lot more difficult when State and USAID are required to spend a certain amount of money on HIV/AIDS or democracy promotion.  Few would argue that treating disease and promoting democracy is unimportant, but the ratio of this sector funding may not, and is probably not, in line with what countries think they need help with.

This is not to say that Congress should renege on its constitutional responsibilities to be a partner with the Administration on budget issues, or that the advocacy community should not play a role.  Rather, Congress should deliberate on the objectives of aid and set priorities.  The development professionals should decide how the various sectors support those objectives and priorities.  Aid advocates need to educate Congress on the value their approach or sector brings to achieving those objectives.  And, the engagement of U.S. development experts (both in and out of government) with Congress on country ownership can guide the entire process.

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