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US Development Policy


This post also appears on The Will and the Wallet.

It is exactly one week until the midterm elections that many pundits predict will change the political landscape for at least the next two years.  For those who track budget matters, the question has become, what do the elections mean for development and diplomacy—the two Ds that with defense are the professed pillars of U.S. national security?

I won’t engage in prognostications on the number of seats either party will hold in the 112th Congress.  Regardless of who wins, the international affairs—or 150—budget will be under enormous pressure. The foreign operations budget (the bulk of U.S. foreign assistance programs) is larger and likely more vulnerable to deeper cuts than the State operations portion.

The real question is whether an anemic economic recovery, a $1.3 trillion budget deficit and the House and Senate led by parties holding slim majorities will create the perfect storm to sink the momentum that has built up around development?  Or will the confluence of events force real reform, to ensure we are getting the biggest bang for our development bucks?

The American public has a better appreciation for the role that development plays as a key part of U.S. global engagement in the post-9/11 world.  Yet, policymakers often view foreign assistance as an area that can be cut without provoking public backlash.  This is in part because the direct beneficiaries live beyond our shores and the longer-term benefits for the U.S. take time, sometimes fail, and can be difficult to attribute to a specific foreign assistance intervention.

In this environment, elected officials make choices, and those choices often get simplified to: Do I vote for activities that will promote jobs here (my State) or there (not my country)?  When budgets are tight, there is often little wiggle room for supporting both.  The electoral dynamics are obvious and become even more salient as the U.S. presidential election gears up by mid-2011.

So how do we avoid the perfect storm?   We should recognize that the international affairs budget request for FY2011 comprises just 1.4 percent of the federal budget.  Cutting it would do far more harm to U.S. foreign policy than it will contribute to fiscal restraint.  The payoffs in promoting global stability and obviating the need for more expensive military and post-disaster responses may not be quantifiable, but common sense tells us they are significant.

And to get specific, development advocates, administration officials, and Congress should consider the following:

  • Embrace reform as a way to improve effectiveness and achieve sustainable results.  The U.S. foreign assistance framework needs an overhaul—from its objectives to its architecture and everything in-between.   Reform also means prioritizing evaluations that can guide policy making and funding allocations.   The result will be that aid dollars will not just go farther, they’ll accomplish more.
  • Be strategic in the cuts that are made by avoiding penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions.  Shortchanging funding for evaluating programs, for example, may feel good now, but it will be wasteful over the long term.  Cut the stuff that is truly wasteful.  Requirements to restrict U.S. food aid to only U.S. commodities transported on U.S. ships adds an estimated 25 percent to the cost of doing business and can significantly delay our emergency relief efforts, according to the Government Accountability Office.
  • Send up a unified National Security Budget so that Congress can see how development, diplomacy, and defense work together to support U.S. interests at home and abroad.  Congress may still consider defense separately from diplomacy and development budgets, but sending up a unified budget justification would be a powerful presentation of the 3D rhetoric.  With the difficulty in passing individual spending bills, there may be by default a 3D appropriations bill.
  • Give Congress some ownership of important initiatives, including the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the new Global Development Policy, and the Feed the Future Initiative, among others.  Many of the ideas in the latter two were informed by early work done by authorizing committees.  This entails meaningful collaboration with more Members on more issues.  And yes, that includes Members who have been the most skeptical
  • Discard the notion that Republicans don’t get it when it comes to foreign assistance.  Some of the largest aid increases in history came under the previous Bush administration with bipartisan support in Congress.

Call me the optimist, but the 112th Congress, with its anticipated focus on fiscal restraint, could be the catalyst that achieves meaningful aid reform.  That would be good for development and good for the budget.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.