Last week, MFAN hosted an event recognizing the launch of a new report titled “Engagement Amid Austerity: A Bipartisan Approach to Reorienting the International Affairs Budget” and co-authored by MFAN Principals John Norris and Connie Veillette. The event was moderated by George Ingram, MFAN Co-Chair and Chairman of USGLC, and featured John Norris, Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and Connie Veillette, then Director of the Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Program at the Center for Global Development. Responding to the report launch were Gordon Adams, Professor in the School of International Service at American University and Distinguished Fellow at The Stimson Center, and Andrew Preston, Counselor for Development in the Foreign and Security Policy Group at the British Embassy.
Ingram opened the discussion by arguing the report is incredibly thought provoking and it underscores the importance of improving the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance. Veillette explained the reasoning behind producing the report and the principles used to guide it. During this time of budget austerity, she explained they wanted to think about how and where to cut in smart ways that would not hurt the U.S. aid infrastructure and, wherever possible, minimize the impact cuts would have in developing countries.
To create the report, Veillette and Norris put together a working group of 15 bipartisan individuals who provided input on ways to frame and approach the topic. The goal was to provide a framework to accommodate cuts to the International Affairs budget—frequently referred to as the 150 account—while maintaining U.S. global leadership in the field. Four big ideas came out of the framework discussions: be more selective and focused on what types of economic and security assistance are provided and to which countries; put PEPFAR programs in upper-middle income countries on an increased cost-sharing trajectory; reform U.S. food assistance programs by eliminating monetization, cargo preferences, and allowing more local and regional purchase of emergency food aid; and create an International Affairs Realignment Commission to examine and redesign programs and architecture.
Norris provided more insight into the process for formulating the report. He said the working group began by recognizing the robust dialogue and debate around aid effectiveness and the lack of discussion about where the U.S. would have the most impact in delivering aid. The working group went through 146 countries who receive U.S. aid and evaluated forces that conspire around selectivity. The findings showed that the U.S. is wildly over-deployed and not as effective as it could be. The report concludes that the U.S. can move the development needle by putting more resources into fewer places.
The first respondent to speak was Adams who was also a member of the report’s working group. He commented on the importance of the report, where it makes real progress, and a few areas where it stimulated his thinking. According to Adams, the importance of the report is in the way the U.S. engages with the world and where it puts resources behind that engagement. He said the report recognizes certain realities, including the notion that the U.S. has a limited ability to create systematic change in the developing world and most of the economic activity occurring in developing countries has little to do with the bilateral and multilateral assistance of major donors. The three components of the report he found stimulating included the U.S.’ ability to help countries create stable governments and fight corruption; the need for sufficient human resources and operating expenses at USAID to ensure effectiveness of our aid dollars; and the role of the Defense Department in development work, adding “with the money comes the mission.”
Preston rounded out the panel by discussing his experience at DFID and austerity in the UK. The UK is also facing major budget cuts, but Preston noted that austerity measures have not affected DFID’s operating model. DFID’s duty is to spend every penny of aid money well and focus on transparency, evaluation, showing results, and communicating successes and the value of aid. As a DFID representative he believes any changes made in the structural makeup of U.S. foreign aid will be beneficial for all donors. He also believes that the international focus on country ownership will improve effectiveness while making an effort to underpin political decision making and enforcing the importance of graduation.
Overall, it was a lively discussion to kick off a new dialogue around how to make U.S. foreign assistance flexible and effective amid a time of tight budgets and true leadership from developing countries.