Ideas to Action:

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Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opened the first of a series of hearings on foreign assistance reform with a bold statement last Wednesday calling for major overhaul of the system. Says Berman:

It is painfully obvious to Congress, the Administration, foreign aid experts, and NGOs alike, that our foreign assistance program is fragmented and broken and in critical need of overhaul. I strongly believe that America's foreign assistance program is not in need of some minor changes, but, rather, it needs to be reinvented and retooled in order to respond to the significant challenges our country and the world faces in the 21st century.

Chairman Berman then laid out an ambitious agenda of issues and actions for the Committee over the next year, including working with the incoming Administration to rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, a bill that has not been reauthorized since 1985 and is not crafted to meet the challenges and the opportunities of the 21st century.
CGD Senior Fellow Steve Radelet was among four experts to testify before the Committee, urging Congress and the Executive branch to seize the moment for modernizing U.S. foreign assistance. Says Radelet:

The recognition of today's great foreign policy challenges, the broad agreement on the importance of foreign assistance as a critical foreign policy tool, the successes we are seeing around the world in economic and social development, and the upcoming change in administration creates the best opportunity in decades for modernizing and strengthening our foreign assistance programs… Taking up this important challenge will enhance the leadership role of the United States in the world, strengthen our ability to forge alliances to achieve our broader goals, enhance our security, and help fight poverty around the world.

Testimony from other witnesses -- Lael Brainard of Brookings, Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam and former Congressman Jim Kolbe -- similarly pushed for a major overhaul of U.S. foreign assistance, including the need for a national strategy for global development and a new foreign assistance Act.
The hearing was an important first step by the Committee to build awareness, build bridges -- both bipartisan and bicameral -- and build a 21st century strategy that elevates global development and foreign assistance in our national interest. Key take-aways:

  • The large turnout (more than 20 members of Congress) gives reason for optimism that foreign assistance modernization has a growing constituency. However, the relatively few Republicans in attendance (two stayed for the full hearing), suggests that additional efforts are needed to build a bipartisan coalition for change.
  • Among those who attended, there was surprisingly strong consensus on the need for reform, with particular emphasis on redefining priorities for foreign assistance. Most members focused on the merits of rewriting (or at least revising through reauthorization) the Foreign Assistance Act; most members supported the need for organizational improvement and inter-departmental collaboration but believed the political lift required for a new Cabinet-level Department might prove too much given competing demands.
  • There were several calls for strong monitoring, evaluation and results reporting of U.S. foreign assistance. Indeed, Ranking Member Ros-Lehtinen raised the need for an independent evaluation agency. (Sounded an awful lot like CGD's International Initiative for Impact Evaluation -- "3IE").

All in all, a good turn-out and a good dialogue on the key elements of a comprehensive effort to modernize U.S. foreign assistance. For CGD's research and analysis on this issue, visit our Modernizing U.S. Foreign Assistance Initiative site.