Ideas to Action:

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The FY2012 federal budget will be released Monday amid what can only be described as an inhospitable environment for foreign assistance.  The week also promises us some drama on Capitol Hill as the House takes up a bill to fund the rest of the current fiscal year.  The bill (H.R. 1) includes a slew of cuts that will affect how the United States engages with the world in such places as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Egypt, and among communities globally that are affected by poverty, hunger, and disease.  Fittingly or not, the budget battles begin on St. Valentine's Day.

A simple blog post on what I’d like to see in the President’s budget seems superficial if I don’t also take into account the dueling message coming from the House majority.  One document will outline where funds in the next year should be spent; the other will list what will be cut in the seven months remaining in this fiscal year.

Here’s what I’d like to see from the President’s budget and Congress:

The FY2012 Budget

  • Focused and Selective Aid.  The President’s Policy Directive on Development (PPD) and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) claimed that U.S. assistance programs needed to be more selective and focused.  That implies that the U.S. will stop trying to spread itself too thin and will focus its efforts where they can have the most impact.
  • A Rationale for Aid.  U.S. aid agencies and the State Department do a poor job in articulating the purposes of aid, what it seeks to accomplish, and how it supports U.S. foreign policy goals.  The budget should clearly state aid objectives and how resources have been carefully crafted to achieve those goals.  The American public does support assistance when the purpose is well reasoned and clearly understood.  Click here for interesting poll results.

  • Leverage.  The Administration raised the concepts of using U.S. comparative advantages and public-private partnerships, and working with other international donors in a division of labor in the PPD and the QDDR.  The budget should be clear about what those comparative advantages are and how the resources of other interested donors (government, philanthropic, and private sector) can be leveraged around common objectives.

The FY2011 Continuing Resolution

  • Focused and Selective Cuts.  Cuts can be thoughtful and constructive – that is, they help to reduce costs, maximize efficiencies, and bring better focus to assistance programs.  Or, cuts can be put together in a hasty and not well-reasoned fashion and actually raise costs over time, disrupt effective programs, and threaten the country’s ability to stay engaged globally.  Obviously I would prefer the former.
  • A Rationale for Cuts.  If cuts are to be made, then I want to see a rationale for why these cuts versus those cuts, and an understanding of how U.S. national security will not be affected.  If the Administration has been able to articulate the purposes of aid (that are defensible), Congress will have better information on which to base its own debate.
  • Leverage.  Congress needs to recognize that other donors and private interests follow the U.S. lead in deciding where to put their own aid investments.  Many international donors resisted committing resources to global food security until the United States advocated for bringing donors together around this common purpose.  Cutting programs in which the United States has been able to leverage the resources of others will undermine U.S. leadership.

The Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance initiative will be closely following the budget battles ahead.  Unfortunately, I’m not sensing a whole lot of love in the air.