Convoluted Foreign Aid

In late April, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented the results of a comprehensive study on what works, and what could work better, regarding U.S. foreign assistance to the developing world. A PDF copy of the study can be found here.

It's no surprise to me that the GAO found we could get much better results than we are currently seeing. The current system -- first implemented on the watch of President Kennedy in 1961 -- administers global development policies within a convoluted and redundant spider's web of 12 departments, 25 different agencies, and nearly 60 government offices.

I urge readers to learn more about H.R. 2139, legislation introduced recently by Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) to move towards much-needed foreign aid reform, and urge their own lawmakers to co-sponsor this important bill.

Most prominent among the study's key findings is that the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) currently lack a comprehensive foreign assistance strategy. They also need a clear, consistent framework for communicating with their employees about their efforts to avoid confusion among staffs and hindering relations between management and staff.

While visiting a few development projects during a recent trip to Malawi, it became clear to me that several federal agencies and non-governmental organizations had very little idea about what each other were working on. As such, it came as no shock that the GAO study also uncovered that goals and measures in the State Department's and USAID's country operational plans do not always align with those of other agencies providing foreign assistance. This limits assurance that all U.S. foreign assistance funds are strategically tied to the broader U.S. foreign policy goals in that country or region.

Finally, according to the study, the U.S. government has not yet clearly defined the roles of some of its employees and organizational units and had not matched all employees' skills with their positions. Case in point: Our men and women who serve in the U.S. armed forces do an outstanding job at defending our nation and her interests, but are often asked to administer development aid -- something they are not trained to do.

U.S. foreign assistance has worked miracles around the globe, but is in dire need of an overhaul. A more efficient foreign assistance system -- with better coordination, better accountability and better clarity -- will ensure that people who need help the most get it faster and more effectively. Also, it will mean less waste and more impact for our hard-earned tax dollars.

Rev. David Beckmann, president, Bread for the World; and co-chair, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.