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Who'd a Thunk It? Bipartisan Consensus on Foreign Aid

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Co-authored by Sarah Jane Staats

Amidst of a month of partisan battles on Capitol Hill over a Supreme Court nominee, health care and financial regulation, a new bill was introduced this week that rose above party lines: the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009 (S. 1524). Senators Kerry, Lugar, Menendez, Corker, Risch and Cardin-three Democrats and three Republicans-introduced the bill as "a first step toward comprehensive reform of U.S. foreign assistance," showing they are ready, willing and able to work with the administration on a set of deeper reforms.

Sheila Herrling and Sarah Jane StaatsThe new legislation puts USAID front and center on U.S. development policy and strengthens its structure and capacity to be more effective and accountable. Key elements of the bill include:

  • Adding a second Deputy Administrator (just like State has with Jack Lew and Jim Steinberg).
  • Adding an Assistant Administrator for Policy and Strategic Planning to direct U.S. government policy on development issues, provide long-term planning and budget management, and conduct research, monitoring and evaluation (in a new office of Learning, Evaluation and Analysis in Development).
  • Creating an independent Council on Research and Evaluation (CORE) in the executive branch to objectively evaluate the impact of all (multilateral and bilateral) foreign aid programs funded by the U.S. (CGD vice president Ruth Levine called for independent impact evaluation of aid in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in 2006.
  • Mandating a strategic review of USAID human resources needs at headquarters and in the field, with help from a public-private task-force.
  • While remarkable for its bipartisanship, the bill is even more commendable for its content and the co-sponsors' passion behind that content.

Senator Kerry's speech at Brookings signaled his intent to take on the need for strengthening the development policy pillar of U.S. national security, including through serious foreign aid reform. And Senator Lugar's guest op-ed posted on our site shows he means business on the details of how to and who should move the effort forward. Neither backed down from what we presume was pressure from the State Department to hold off on the bill until State finished its recently-announced Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review (QDDR) . But, as Senator Lugar said in his op-ed, these "are just first steps that do not pre-judge or conflict with the State Department's current review of our diplomatic and development policy. A strong, independent foreign aid agency is critical to our long-term security."

We couldn't agree more. All these pieces signal growing support in Congress and among constituents. The congressional initiatives and the QDDR should and can work in tandem. But finishing the task requires adding a few more pieces and perhaps taking out a few others, namely:

  • Name a strong USAID Administrator NOW and give that appointee a healthy degree of autonomy from the State Department to lead on development, including a seat on the National Security Council. This should not be seen as a threat to the Secretary of State's authority but rather as a powerful complementary smart-power development voice at the decision-making table.
  • Get cracking on a White House-led, whole-of-government national strategy on global development. The QDDR ought to eventually be a review of a national strategy (much like the Quadrennial Defense Review reviews performance against the National Security Strategy), not just operations. And the Kerry-Lugar bill needs to make sure that the coherence of U.S. policies - how they either work in synergy or at cross-purposes -- is evaluated and strengthened to get the biggest bang from our foreign assistance bucks.
  • Rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, to clarify the mission, mandate and organizational structure for U.S. foreign assistance and reduce the extensive amount of restrictions-earmarks, presidential initiatives, tied aid, fragmentation-that lessen the impact of development dollars.
  • Ensure that the efforts of the new U.S. evaluation council (CORE) contribute to and learn from global impact evaluation mechanisms such as the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation or 3ie.
  • Lessen the reporting burden on agencies to the maximum degree possible. The Kerry-Lugar bill contains some thirteen new reporting requirements without removing any of the existing (and huge) stock. It is time for a comprehensive review to rationalize reporting requirements, eliminating unnecessary, duplicative and/or outdated reports to allow USAID to focus the maximum amount of intellectual and operational capacity on delivering effective, results-based development programs.

Huge kudos go to the co-sponsors of the new bill and their staff for their thoughtful, well-reasoned and non-partisan approach to strengthening USAID and monitoring development impact as important steps toward broader reform. We are hoping this latest step from Congress leads to the giant leap necessary for comprehensive U.S. foreign aid reform.