Foreign aid reform in the United States: Trying to have it both ways
President Obama announced at the UN on September 22nd, generally to plaudits from the international development community, an enhanced role for American development assistance. These plaudits are well deserved. President Obama stated, both in his UN remarks and in a simultaneously issued Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, that international development would be elevated in his administration's policy apparatus, and that the U.S Agency for International Development would be strengthened. These are welcome concepts, given the importance of addressing profound poverty and transnational scourges, like disease and environmental degradation.
The core of the changes the President announced yesterday were about rationalizing U.S. foreign aid: targeting aid to fewer countries to ensure impact; focusing aid on those countries that have, themselves, invested most in human progress; driving more resources into broad-based economic growth, to sustain development investments; paying more attention to the priorities established by aid recipient countries; limiting the technical sectors in which the U.S. delivers assistance; and optimizing the division of labor among U.S. foreign aid, and multilateral, other bilateral, and non-governmental aid institutions. This all makes sense. It is the kind of reform approach that, if one walked the hallways of USAID headquarters -- or the hallways of DFID, DANIDA, AFD, CIDA, SIDA, and other transatlantic development agencies -- would elicit the reaction: "Well done. It's about time. That is what we development specialists have been saying right along." But, regrettably, as the old canard states: "Saying doesn't make it so!" If the Obama Administration wants to turn the U.S. development assistance apparatus towards these new, reformist directions, it also has to rearrange American foreign policy mechanisms to effect the change. It is in this sphere that the President did not do as well in his September 22nd statements.
By trying to have it both ways, the Administration is unlikely to achieve the vision it painted yesterday. Let me explain. The reason the U.S. government does not operate its current foreign aid programs in the rational paradigm President Obama described at the United Nations has to do with bureaucratic political power, plain and simple. As control of U.S. development policy has gravitated over the past several decades -- slowly, inevitably, under both parties' leadership -- from USAID to the Department of State, U.S. foreign aid has increasing been colored by the interests of priority nations, a shorter-term perspective, more American flag-waving, more program priorities that will please domestic audiences in the U.S., and a predilection for broadening the categories of foreign aid. This tendency does not suggest that U.S. State Department officials are malign or misguided. They, in their oversight of U.S. foreign assistance, simply behave as diplomats and foreign ministries have always behaved: Their priorities are queued up in terms of attaining foreign policy ends, and foreign aid is just one -- albeit an important one -- of the tools in their toolkit.
In this logic, a long-term, rational, broad-based economic development plan in a well-governed, but obscure, nation will always get cut before the foreign aid program in a strategically placed ally in the counterinsurgency realm. Now, if President Obama intended to change this reality with his UN remarks and Presidential Policy Directive, then the inspirational rhetoric about USAID being a "premier" development agency would have been matched by some real political power, so that rationalized U.S. foreign aid programs could hold their own in the inevitable bureaucratic and budgetary tussles. A close reading of the documents and remarks released on September 22nd suggests just the opposite. The USAID Administrator still reports to the Secretary of State, in the American foreign policy hierarchy, and is not designated a regular attendee at National Security Council meetings.
At America's diplomatic missions around the world, it is the U.S. Ambassador, not the USAID Country Director, who will organize the American foreign aid program. And, there is no mention of significantly expanding the size of the U.S. development agency, which has shrunk dramatically in recent decades. There are no real surprises, for those who regularly observe Washington political processes, that a powerful American Secretary of State -- and one who really cares about international development, to boot -- maintained her hold on U.S development assistance policy. But, we should understand, as analysts, what is happening. Either the implementation of the policies President Obama announced September 22nd will elevate the standing of the USAID development advocates within the U.S. government or the rationalizing steps he announced will remain stillborn. Even the President of the United States cannot have it both ways.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.