Development assistance is, plain and simple, an investment in a better, safer world. And it ought to be designed to achieve maximum development outcomes. We are finally starting to learn the lessons of 50 years of development assistance, such as the importance of data transparency, program monitoring and evaluation, clear strategies with measurable goals, country ownership, use of local systems, and harmonization with other donors. Let’s not abandon those lessons by attempting to leverage aid for short-term diplomatic gains – which doesn’t usually work, anyway.
President Obama launched the opening salvo in the FY2015 budget process with his recently released request, and while some of his foreign assistance proposals seem destined to go the way of the cutting room floor, you certainly can’t fault the request for having a specific point of view. The FY2015 international affairs budget request is edgy (a word I’ve never used to describe a budget request) in what it chooses to prioritize and push for, given basically flat funding. Indeed the $50 billion request is actually 1 percent below enacted FY2014 levels due to a downsized Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The base International Affairs FY2015 request stands at $44.1 billion with an additional $5.9 billion for the OCO account.
Continued Commitment on Reform? A signature of this Administration has been to build on the reforms of the Bush era in bringing accountability and transparency to our foreign assistance programs. Last year the MCC scored highest on the Aid Transparency Index, making the Corporation the most open aid agency in the world. USAID Forward has led the way with a significant scale-up of its evaluation and learning capacity so we can better understand what impact our programs are making. Will we see continued investments in operating funds at USAID, State Department and other smart power agencies and what will happen with new efforts in science, technology and innovation?
The President has signaled that he wants to move past our current period of austerity that has defined White House and Congressional budgets for a number of years. What will this mean for foreign assistance and development issues? Will foreign aid still comprise just 1% of the total budget? Will it include dedicated funding for the President’s new Power Africa initiative? Where do administration initiatives such as Feed the Future, the Global Health Initiative, and other new ventures fit? My crystal ball is notoriously cloudy, but here’s where I think some of this will go.
At a time when we would wish we were closer to reaching the MDGs, and our optimism is burdened by continued poverty and the accompanying hunger, ill-health and strife, it is important to celebrate the progress that has been made and the good efforts that are being made by the U.S. government, private U.S. organizations and individuals, and their counterparts around the world. It also is important to note that there remain other significant parts to the development agenda and commitments to be fulfilled—making our aid process more accountable through better evaluation, transparency, and learning; moving from good policy to actual implementation of local ownership, starting with listening to the needs and solutions of local institutions and individuals; effectively promoting open, democratic political institutions and civil society; and leveraging the talents and experiences outside of government, including the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and academia.
“I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures – even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.”
Congress needs to understand that the dashboard and IATI are the tools it has been searching for. Members continuously complain about the opaqueness of foreign assistance – how much assistance is the U.S. providing, to what countries, for what purposes, in cooperation with whom, to what effect? Where is the information to explain to constituents how their tax dollars are being spent? Together the dashboard and IATI will provide this information.
ompleting the transformation of U.S. foreign assistance will reposition the U.S. as not just the most generous, but also the most strategic, innovative, and effective player in global development. We have saved and improved millions of lives over the last ten years and our efforts have helped strengthen our image abroad: a new field survey of aid recipient countries by Oxfam America finds that 83 percent of respondents believe the U.S. is a better development partner now than five years ago. The opportunity at hand for the next ten years is to turn progress into lasting change by helping those people take control of their own lives.
The principles the President championed the first day of his Presidency are reflected in the reform and evaluation processes undertaken by key US development agencies – new and better data enables citizens to hold their governments to account, and transparency helps to make programs more efficient. But the commitments the US has made to aid transparency are stifled by the approach it has chosen to meet them. US development agencies need to be encouraged to publish what they can, as soon as they can.
Because we are living in times that require a fully integrated national security approach, the USAID administrator should become the president’s principal advisor for development and assistance (akin to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff role and associated linkage to the secretary of defense, but concomitant to the secretary of state) and a permanent member on the National Security Council.