In the past few months many new initiatives have moved from rhetorical promise to concrete plan.  The administration and Congress have put forth their proposals and held hearings on global hunger and food security for the new ‘Feed the Future’ Initiative.  Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman John Kerry and Bob Corker introduced the ‘Haiti Empowerment, Assistance, and Rebuilding Act of 2010’ to legislate and coordinate the many on-going Haiti projects in USAID, the State Department, the Treasury Department and beyond. In February, the administration issued its Global Health Initiative (GHI) consultation document and just recently the SFRC picked up the GHI baton by including directive language in its State Re-Authorization bill.

While each of these proposals will no doubt serve its intended sector well, what do initiatives springing up like wildflowers mean for broader U.S. foreign aid reform?

First, the positives.  As the development community has pointed out, many of the “best practices” of development can be found in the fine print for these programs.  The Feed the Future Initiative touts country-led plans and increased investment in innovative research and technology.  The Haiti legislation incorporates principles of long-term planning, gender integration, and multi-donor coordination.  The Global Health Initiative seeks broad coordination and integration of U.S. global health programs – including those at USAID, CDC, and OGAC – with an eye towards scalable sustainability.

All three proposals go into impressive and explicit detail on these best practices of development.  But the problem is not the details; it’s what all these initiatives mean on a larger scale, what they mean for the way the U.S. government interacts with nations receiving development assistance.

The varied initiatives and acts only increase the “silo-ed” nature of U.S. development that has been on the rise since the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961.  For example, the legislation on Haiti creates a senior coordinator within the State Department to advise, oversee, and coordinate all policies of the U.S. government related to Haiti.  Meanwhile the USAID administrator is tasked with preparing a multi-year strategy to provide assistance in support of the reconstruction of Haiti. 

Similarly the food security initiative already has an office on global hunger in the State Department co-headed by a deputy coordinator for diplomacy and a deputy coordinator for development, and word is that there will be a senior person above those deputy coordinators too.

The Global Health Initiative has only issued a consultation document but it seems gears are already in motion to begin another coordination process in the yet-to-be-announced “GHI+” countries.

Without broader foreign aid reform, the administration and Congress must settle for more work-arounds and end up creating more fragmented and separate coordination systems in an effort to compensate for an imperfect system.  Compounding this fragmentation with the growing complexity of programs and management makes transparency and accountability to Congress and the American public increasingly impossible.

What’s needed – and has been asked for repeatedly by the development community – is a clear development strategy that specifies the U.S.’s development goals and who’s in charge of achieving them.  (The recently leaked draft Presidential Study Directive calls for a national strategy on global development but doesn’t go so far as to lay out an actual strategy.)  Until that happens, we will continue to see sectoral initiatives proliferate at the expense of over-arching programs that connect and synthesize.  In the absence of a global development strategy that can harmonize these many efforts, we’re left with a cacophony of coordinators, bureaus, and offices.  Give us the big picture on U.S. development strategy, and then let’s work out the details.