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US Foreign Aid: Why There's Little to Choose between Obama and Romney (The Guardian)

October 3, 2012
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Director of CGD's Rethinking US Foreign Assistance Program Sarah Jane Staats writes on the similarity between the two presidential candidates' ideas for foreign aid.

The following op-ed originally appeared in The Guardian.

The US presidential campaign has been more about saving jobs at home than saving lives abroad. But America's role in the world was centre stage at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last week, where President Barack Obama decried modern slavery and Mitt Romney unveiled his vision for foreign assistance. The surprise: so far, Romney sounds a lot like Obama on foreign aid.

Obama's White House and executive agencies have been leading initiatives to update US foreign assistance and elevate development policy alongside defence and diplomacy. But his policymakers had a late start.

Obama picked those he wanted to lead on defence and diplomacy – Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton – well before he took office, but it took more than a year to nominate Rajiv Shah for the top job at the US international development agency, USAid, which still has key leadership vacancies. Staffing delays and two development policy reviews – one led by the White House and the other run by the State Department and USAid – consumed the better half of this presidential term.

As a result, the efforts of Obama's administration to improve the US aid architecture and approach, including gathering better data and evidence about what works, are still getting off the ground. Obama's team missed an opportunity to work with members of Congress – under Democratic leadership before the mid-term elections – to legislate changes. His development policymakers see this election as the difference between launching their policy vision, or actually carrying it out.

Romney, who has been silent on these issues until now, is promising a modern but not new foreign aid approach. His plan addresses the same important issues that have driven the development agendas of both Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush.

Romney spoke of three "quite legitimate" but familiar aid objectives during his Clinton Global Initiative remarks on Tuesday. "First, to address humanitarian need. Such is the case with the Pepfar (the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), an initiative that has provided medical treatment to millions suffering from HIV and Aids. Second, to foster a substantial US strategic interest, be it military, diplomatic, or economic." The third purpose, Romney said, is "aid that elevates people and brings about lasting change in communities and nations".

Romney's "prosperity pacts" sound a lot like Obama's "partnerships for growth". Both emphasise economic growth and better use of trade policy and private sector investment. Similarly, Obama and Romney both aim to be more selective about where the US gives foreign assistance to spur policy reform and prosperity, not just deliver social services. The US Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by Bush with bipartisan support from Congress, embodies the same principles.

The future of US foreign aid may not hinge on widely divergent presidential views, but on the general distraction of the election and the dynamic of the incoming Congress.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, the cast of characters in Washington and US aid missions around the globe will change. The secretary of state and development champion Hillary Clinton will say farewell even if Obama wins a second term. A Romney administration would start afresh with nominations and confirmation processes, and would need to catch up on the past four years of development reforms, especially at USAid. Political and professional staff will move around between development posts.

The congressional election – and pressure to cut government spending – will have the biggest impact on the future of US foreign aid. According to research for the Centre for Global Development by Markus Goldstein and Todd Moss, the relative priority of aid to Africa, for example, is the same under Republican or Democratic presidents, but the relationship between the president and Congress is what matters: when both are controlled by the same party, aid to Africa is higher; when it is split, aid is lower – both in terms of absolute flows and as a percentage of total aid.

In recent years, Congress has also lost development champions, especially moderate Republicans like senator Richard Lugar, who led smart, bipartisan approaches to tackle poverty, inequality, conflict and disease. More extremism and less bipartisanship in Congress is bad both for policymaking, and for fulfilling an otherwise shared approach to US foreign assistance.

The Democratic and Republican party platforms, unlike Romney's remarks last week, put partisan issues – from abortion to gay rights – back in the foreign aid discussion, indicating where the congressional, if not presidential, disputes might be. Their views on climate and migration policies are even more polarised, which could have much bigger implications for developing countries and poor people around the globe than foreign aid alone.

Read it here.

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