U.S. foreign assistance has helped drive some of the greatest human progress in the last 50 years. The impact of America's generosity and leadership can be measured in millions of lives saved and transformed. For example, the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe's economy after World War II, and the Green Revolution in agriculture helped put Asia on a path to long-term growth in the 1960s and '70s. The Campaign for Child Survival raised immunization rates from 15 percent to nearly 80 percent in the 1980s, and efforts to increase access to HIV/AIDS drugs in Africa helped millions of people over the last decade.
Led by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the current administration has strengthened America's commitment to development by calling it a "moral, strategic, and economic imperative," building on the campaign pledge Obama made to ensure that "development is established and endures as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy."
But the rhetorical rubber meets the road when we look at the current system we use to deliver foreign aid. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), written during the Cold War era, is outdated and does not address the challenges of the modern world. Nearly 500 pages long, it includes hundreds of overlapping and uncoordinated goals, provisions, and directives. The programs it authorizes are executed by at least 12 departments, 25 different agencies, and almost 60 government offices.
According to Oxfam America field research, this lack of strategic order and coordination has real on-the-ground consequences:
- In Afghanistan, where a "civilian surge" is under way, two separate U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractors recently discovered by chance that they were doing virtually the same project in the same town.
- In Bangladesh, the United States collects several times the amount in tariffs that it provides in assistance, essentially taxing the very trade U.S. leaders tout as a solution to poverty.
- In Cambodia, government officials typically find it easier to get information on aid resources from the Chinese government than from the U.S. government.
The people we are trying to help, and the generous U.S. taxpayers who support our efforts to improve their lives, cannot afford this inefficiency when budgets are tight and effective development is such a critical element of our foreign policy and national security. The time has come for the president to lead the way in reforming U.S. foreign assistance:
- First, the president should use his "New Approach to Advancing Development" paper, released at the recent G8 summit in Muskoka, Canada, as a basis for creating America's first-ever Global Development Strategy. The paper makes a strong case for reorienting and strengthening U.S. development efforts, but it does not answer crucial questions: Is achieving broad-based development a distinct goal of U.S. global engagement, or is it merely a tool to serve diplomatic or defense objectives? And will USAID experts in the field have the authority to implement foreign aid programs, or will diplomats and soldiers? A new strategy must resolve these issues.
- Second, the president should signal publicly that he is ready to work with Congress on foreign aid reform, particularly by overhauling the FAA. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) has already released a working draft of a new FAA, and last year, 126 representatives and 23 senators from both sides of the aisle supported foreign assistance reform legislation.
At stake is America's ability to effectively address the global challenges of the 21st century. And the timing is important. In just two months, the eyes of the world will be on the Millennium Development Goals Summit, where committed nations must pledge new energy and resolve in the fight against global poverty. By showing leadership on foreign assistance reform, President Obama will attach actions to his words on development -- and hopefully lead others to commit to more effectively empowering the world's poorest people to realize a brighter future.
Rev. David Beckmann, World Food Prize laureate, is president of Bread for the World and co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.