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Foreign Aid Reform: Spaghetti, Leaks and Hope

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For those who care about international development and global poverty reduction, for those who want to see the United States government reestablish itself as the global leader on international development, and for those who simply want the U.S. to improve the effectiveness of its development assistance, this has been an exciting week.

Ray Offenheiser, the President of Oxfam America and a Principal in the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), started it off with a brilliant reminder that foreign aid reform is much more than rationalizing a far too confusing organizational chart. That confusion is very unfortunate. There are too many disparate agencies responsible for U.S. development assistance; it is, as Ray says, a "spaghetti bowl of confused and conflicting responsibilities..." But, as he also made clear, it is far more important to focus on vision than structure. We need a National Strategy for Global Development to guide organizational and programmatic reform. It is essential if the U.S. is to be a global leader.

A few days later, as many of us were readying ourselves to rally behind Ray's call for action, the media published a leaked draft version of the Presidential Study Directive-7 on Global Development. This apparent National Security Council (NSC) vision for the future is a major step forward in making U.S. development policy and foreign assistance more effective. It should give many of us hope.

Those who have been arguing for foreign aid reform and the more strategic use of "smart power" should be pleased. The NSC draft calls for the elevation of development as a central pillar of U.S. national security; it calls for a strengthened development agency (USAID) and independent development voice at the table when relevant policy is debated; and it calls for greater coherence in U.S. development policy through the framework of a quadrennial U.S. Global Development Strategy.

We should also applaud the call for new approaches that are centered on host country ownership and leadership, on sustainability, on innovation, on better coordination with key donors, on rigorous analysis and learning - and on accountability for achieving results. All of these recommendations could lead to significant improvements in the effectiveness of U.S. assistance.

But, even as the leaked NSC document prompted a great sense of hope and optimism, there are still some concerns, especially when we look at some of the steps taken by the Administration over the past year. There are remaining questions. Given the investments in "siloed" initiatives for global health and food security - and soon for climate change - is there still room for a global development strategy? Is there still room for local leadership and ownership when so much of the decision-making is in Washington? Who leads the initiatives - development experts whose mission is to achieve long-term sustainable development goals, or diplomats, who must put out short-term political fires? Who controls the budgets - development experts or diplomats?

These are all important issues that are still being debated and discussed. The tone and inclination in the NSC draft are clearly in the right direction. There is similar good will in the Congress. Now, we can only hope that the political leadership is there to move forward together in a way that truly elevates development and reestablishes U.S. leadership.

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