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Members of the development community were pleasantly surprised when they opened their email box on Wednesday. After a year of voluble criticism from development advocates, U.S. Director of Foreign Assistance and USAID Administrator Randall Tobias had finally inserted the magic word “poverty” into the Bush Administration’s core objective for foreign aid. According to the revised Strategic Framework for Foreign Assistance (pdf), the central goal of the “transformational diplomacy” has been altered to read:
To help build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.
Ambassador Tobias explained the rationale in the following note to the aid community, which asserts that poverty reduction was implied from the outset:
The focus of the Secretarys transformational diplomacy agenda is to concentrate our diplomatic and foreign assistance resources on helping to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. Implicit in the goal has been the United States commitment to reducing widespread poverty and addressing other barriers to fulfilling human potential, while recognizing the central role that good and responsive governance plays in addressing these concerns sustainably. But at the very heart of the transformational goal, and demonstrated through our budget allocation priorities, is widespread poverty reduction.
Many of you have noted that the lack of an explicit poverty focus stated in the goal threatens to undermine our intent, by not making clear the United States continued and unwavering commitment to assisting the poor. In order to convey this critical element of what we mean by transformational diplomacy to the public, we have modified the transformational diplomacy goal…
I appreciate the input from our Congressional and nongovernmental partners in encouraging this modification….
Ambassador Randall L. Tobias
This change is long overdue. From the moment that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unveiled her foreign aid reform plan a year ago, commentators at CGD and elsewhere criticized the inattention to poverty. [Sec. Rice's Aid Reform Plan Falls Short, Foreign Assistance Reform: Transformational Diplomacy and the Development Enterprise, Foreign Assistance Reform--To What End?] This clumsy omission raised suspicions that the de facto merger of State and USAID would lead to a diversion of foreign aid from fighting hunger and despair to rewarding strategic allies and partners in the global war on terror.
Last year’s budget submission appeared to confirm those fears, in the eyes of some. [Aid Organizations Hit out at Bush Budget, Financial Times, February 6, 2006]. The new formulation staunches this self-inflicted wound. It should allow everyone -- the administration and its NGO critics -- to get back to the more important question of ensuring that U.S. assistance is better at helping developing countries build effective institutions of governance that can deliver a variety of benefits -- not least lifting their inhabitants out of poverty