09/08/2011 05:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Foreign Assistance for the 21st Century

On September 8th, Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman will roll out a new, sweeping foreign assistance reform bill aimed at completely replacing the outdated and confusing Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which remains the framework of America's foreign aid today. In a political climate where savings and efficiency are keywords for both political parties, reforming the decades-old foreign assistance framework should be a top priority in Congress.

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 was passed during a time when the Soviet Union posed the gravest threat to the United States, a time when the most common form of continent-to-continent communication was the telegram, plane travel was reserved for the wealthy and elite, and the beehive hair-do was considered the height of fashion. Over the course of 5 decades this legislation has been altered and added to countless times, without coordination or any type of guiding principles. Today, that leaves us with a foreign assistance framework that has been cobbled together, and a diplomatic force that is forced to work within a structure more appropriate for Walter Cronkite and the Cold War than for Twitter and the Arab Spring.

The fact that there are shortcomings in the way America gives foreign assistance is widely accepted in policy circles, yet there have been few real attempts to pull together a coordinated, encompassing and flexible new framework to replace the 1961 Act. Admirably, the Obama administration recognized this hurdle almost from day one and has undertaken a process to review the foreign assistance structure and make recommendations for future changes. These efforts have resulted in a presidential study directive and the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) that outline goals for making foreign assistance better coordinated between agencies, more flexible to accommodate rapidly changing situations and lay out priority areas of focus. Both documents have been extremely useful in identifying problem areas but do not take on the complicated and intensely difficult task of actually putting a new framework into place.

Mr. Berman's bill is the first serious, comprehensive attempt at rewriting the foreign assistance act to make it appropriate for the 21st century. While the specific details of his legislation will not be released until his speech on Thursday, his staff has been diligently working on the legislation for more than a year, meeting with stakeholders in the NGO community, consulting with the State Department and USAID, and trying to engage with both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately, recent discussions about foreign assistance have been dominated by talks of widespread debilitating cuts and controversial political issues rather than the nitty gritty details of trying to make sure America's assistance overseas is targeted, efficient, responsive and transparent. A foreign assistance policy that eliminates redundancies (such as multiple reporting requirements on the same topic) sets clear goals and desired outcomes, is better at monitoring and evaluation and that utilizes the skill of America's diplomatic workforce will be in and of itself more efficient and cost-effective. And policy-makers who are increasingly focused on spending cuts ought to know that diplomatic dollars invested in preventing health crises, finding solutions to ethnic and political conflict, responding to humanitarian disasters and building stable, democratic partners around the globe save the United States money down the road.

The draft legislation released by Mr. Berman on Thursday will not be perfect. When attempting to rewrite legislation that numbers in the hundreds of pages there are bound to be areas that need improvement or change. And that change will come as outside groups and congressional colleagues have a chance to weigh in on the details. However, for now, the fact that Mr. Berman has devoted the time and resources to such a complicated and difficult issue should be appreciated, and will hopefully draw attention to an issue that must be addressed.