Redesign Consensus: Development Community Defends Independent Lead Aid Agency

The Trump Administration’s call for a reorganization of the federal government has many fearful that this exercise will follow in the footsteps of the steep proposed budget cuts for Fiscal Year 2018. Yet MFAN has seen this as an opportunity to provide ideas for principled and rational reform of our aid architecture.  A number of sharp thinkers within the development community have similarly developed informed proposals on how best to structure our foreign assistance agencies and programs to deliver the most for partner countries as well as the American people.

Each major proposal published so far – from the MFAN Co-Chairs, USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the Center for Global Development (CGD) – has taken a unique approach.  Ideas range from the creation of a new Global Development Agency as proposed by the MFAN Co-Chairs, to CGD’s fourteen smaller-scale reforms that could be implemented tomorrow.

However, while each group has come at the issue from a different perspective, it is clear that some common priorities are emerging.  One of the unified calls is the need for the administration to consult Congress throughout its redesign process.  In digging deeper, we’ve found ten core commonalities that fall under three main themes.

One Development Voice

Every proposal asserts that development and diplomacy are separate disciplines with separate missions.  They conclude that the U.S. must maintain an independent lead development agency and this lead agency should be granted clear lines of authority to coordinate all development functions, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

The issue of duplication of functions is also a major obstacle that the proposals address.  Empowering the lead development agency to control its own policy and budget functions would eliminate the often blurred mandates between State and USAID, and allow each to focus on its core mission.  The different reports also acknowledge the changing landscape of development finance and recognize the need to create a more robust U.S. development finance capability and streamline partnership with the private sector to catalyze not only more funding but increased impact.

Coherent Development Approach

Another key link among proposals is the need for a coherent global development strategy.  MFAN’s Guiding Principles for Effective U.S. Assistance, which informed the Co-Chairs’ proposal, call for a global development strategy. Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who co-chaired the CSIS Taskforce, have pending legislation on this issue.  Additionally, the various proposals speak to the importance of aligning assistance with local priorities, putting partner countries in the driver’s seat of their own development.  Many but not all proposals also speak to the idea of country-level transition plans – a topic that newly-confirmed USAID Administrator Mark Green has pinpointed as a priority for his tenure.

Upgraded Development Structures & Systems

A lot of progress has been made in increasing the transparency of foreign assistance, and a familiar roadblock to further improvement is outdated systems for data collection and tracking.  The various structure proposals touch on the idea of increasing data and transparency in order to facilitate a learning culture and decision-making based on results.  Agencies are hamstrung in other ways too, such as Congressional earmarks and Presidential initiatives that make for inflexible funding and don’t allow aid to be nimble or adaptive to changing circumstances.  Another area of inefficiency that the proposals agree should be reformed is the restrictions on how the U.S. delivers food aid. For example, ending cargo preference would be an easy fix that results in feeding more people with the same amount of resources.

Several months ago, when we began writing our proposal for redesign, we could only hope there would be such an outpouring of good ideas from around the community.  Not only have we collectively stepped up to the redesign challenge, but many of these proposals share similar foundational themes: an independent aid agency, a global development strategy, and improved systems.  The community is striking the same chords on the major priorities for redesign even if we have unique ideas on the details.

As the administration continues its consultations and drafts its own proposal, we hope they will elevate these common threads and meaningfully engage Congress in the process.

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