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George Ingram

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Applause for Chairman Berman's New Foreign Aid Legislation

Posted: 07/23/10 12:35 PM ET

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and his staff recently released a working draft of new legislation authorizing U.S. foreign assistance. This is a major step toward building a 21st-century approach and apparatus for promoting development, which President Obama's first National Security Strategy (NSS) called a "moral, strategic, and economic imperative" for the U.S. It is also a long overdue step, as U.S. foreign assistance legislation has not been overhauled since President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

Rep. Berman's thoughtful draft advances the discussion on how to elevate development -- as articulated in the NSS, yet-to-be released White House and State Department studies on development and myriad statements by President Obama, Secretary Clinton and others. More importantly, it proposes specific policies and mechanisms to make the entire U.S. development approach more strategic, coherent and coordinated.

One major proposal -- and one that the Administration should take note of -- changes the way in which Congress reviews development assistance and engages with the Administration on the issue. Currently, Congress reviews hundreds of projects and programs with extreme scrutiny and micromanagement, a massive source of frustration for every administration. In Chairman Berman's draft, Congressional oversight is based on a series of periodic country reviews and thematic program plans. If accepted and implemented as proposed, congressional involvement would not only be given a more appropriate role of reviewing and weighing in at a strategic level, it would also lead to greater consensus on the purposes and objectives of our assistance programs over a period of time. This proposal should be met with a chorus of cheers by the administration.

The draft solves the "who's in charge" debate, streamlining authority for development programs to the USAID Administrator. Congress and the development community have been advocating for greater accountability, and the forthcoming White House study on development calls for "clear lines of authority and responsibility." This provision institutionalizes a distinct line of command by directing the authorities to one senior government official who can then be held accountable, both to the Congress and to the President.

A third key element of the draft brings focus to U.S. assistance policies and programs by establishing a tiered system of strategies that includes an overarching development plan, sector goals and approaches, and country-specific approaches. While USAID would take the lead, the strategy would be developed in collaboration with other U.S. government agencies, as well as with civil society in the United States and in-country. The overlap of these strategies would provide the U.S. with a coherent set of policies and programs, serving as a clear articulation of our priorities. This tiered approach will also allow all engaged parties -- the U.S. government, development partners, and aid recipients -- to operate on the same playing field.

A fourth noteworthy strength of the draft bill is that it sets clear goals to guide the U.S. approach to development and the allocation of development assistance funds. Without doubt, these goals and principles will be subject to debate and modification, but the draft does a huge service by outlining a set of thoughtful concepts for discussion. Having a set of agreed upon principles to guide our assistance programs would provide a level of understanding and transparency that has long been missing from U.S. assistance programs.

And finally, the entire draft is built around widely accepted principles of aid effectiveness. The draft appropriately emphasizes the concept of "country ownership" -- building country development policies and programs around the needs and priorities of the host government and civil society. The bill is focused on producing and monitoring the "results" from our development investments and creating systems that are "transparent" and "accountable." In addition, various mandates for collaboration and engagement seek to implement the principles of "alignment" and "harmonization."

Let's be clear. This is a working draft that will be subject to considerable discussion and modification. There are questions about various provisions. Why create a new, separate funding pot "development support funds" and will that really ease the current funding allocation morass? Is it smart to require an MCC-type 100% upfront funding of projects? How can the important provision on monitoring and evaluation be formulated in a way that does not detract from the innovation and risk taking that the draft seeks to promote? Some will want the draft to go into more detail on specific provisions; the administration and others are likely to prefer less detail.

The reason the Committee has released the bill in draft form is to flush out these and many other questions and alternative suggestions. As we raise issues and make recommendations, let's not forget the tremendous job that Chairman Berman and his staff have done in getting us a strong first cut that substantially moves toward the goal of elevating development and giving the U.S. the tools and framework needed to support a first class development program.