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Views from the Center


*This is a joint post with Sarah Jane Hise
On Monday, the HELP Commission released its much-anticipated final report, "Beyond Assistance." The Commission, created by an Act of Congress spearheaded by Congressman Wolf (R-VA) in January 2004, certainly achieved its mission -- to conduct a thorough review of current U.S. foreign assistance efforts and make bold recommendations for mechanisms, structures and incentives to empower recipients and meet U.S. national security and foreign policy goals and objectives. The fact that such a diverse group of political and other interests could agree that foreign assistance is vital to U.S. interests but is broken and needs to be rebuilt in a way that elevates development to more equal footing with diplomacy and defense is music to our ears. As were most of the guiding principles and specific recommendations put forth by the Commission, including:

  • consolidating the disarray of organizations, purposes and accounts of assistance;
  • rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to establish a new compact on foreign assistance;
  • enhancing policy coherence, particularly by aligning U.S. trade and development policies;
  • increasing resources -- staff, management training, and budget -- for foreign aid;
  • ring-fencing long-term development assistance from redirection to short-term security and policy needs;
  • encouraging greater investment in economic growth, agriculture and infrastructure programs;
  • removing trade restrictions that hamper development, including reducing U.S. agricultural subsidies and providing duty-free/quota-free access for Millennium Challenge Account countries and for countries with $2000 per capita GDP;
  • reestablishing an independent Office of Monitoring and Evaluation to track performance and report results; and
  • instituting a Quadrennial Development and Humanitarian Assistance Review.

As good as these recommendations are, and as good as it is that a diverse group of influential individuals support them, most have already been captured in other efforts that launched throughout the two-year life span of the HELP Commission -- Brookings/CSIS' Security By Other Means, CSIS's Smart Power Commission, the Center for U.S. Global Engagement's Impact '08, and Senator Lugar's Committee Staff Report, Embassies Grapple to Guide Foreign Aid -- as well as CGD's Commission on Weak States and National Security that preceded it. And so at the report's launch the majority of discussion centered on the few areas of dissent instead of the many and rich areas of agreement.
Regrettably, though not surprisingly, the diverse group could not reach consensus on the organizational structure to manage the reformed foreign aid strategy.
The report ended up with three options:

  • A majority position supporting a "super State Department" with four functional under secretaries -- political and security affairs; economic affairs, development and trade; humanitarian services and stabilization; and public diplomacy and consular affairs;
  • A minority report by three commissioners who argue for a cabinet-level department for international development; and
  • An option of folding development programs into the Department of State.

While neither of us are fans of the majority position -- nor the recommendation in the report to create a unified national security budget that combines the current defense (050 account) and international affairs (150 account) budgets in order to secure more support and more resources for foreign assistance in the short run -- perhaps what is most regrettable is that it is yet another report that does great good in terms of raising the profile of foreign assistance but that falls short of a unanimously supported, core set of policy proposals linked to a targeted advocacy and political strategy to unite the development community and lead to meaningful foreign aid reform.
The HELP Commission and Lugar reports signal, yet again, interest in foreign aid reform in Congress, however the HELP Commission closed up shop on December 7 and Republican and Democratic congressional staff alike seem to be placing their bets on the next U.S. president for leading the charge on foreign aid reform. While some presidential candidates are starting to roll out positions on exactly this topic, as reported in prior CGD blog posts on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, the next president will need leaders in not only the executive branch, but also champions in the U.S. Congress and support from the American people.
For us, the question comes down to this: is there something different about the present moment? Unlike past attempts at reform, have we finally reached the point where executive and legislative branches and vested interests in the development community are really open to making bold changes in the status quo of government operations and foreign assistance to bring about real reform? And are the American people, the Congress, and the next president ready and willing to take the agenda forward, recognize and position foreign assistance at the heart of U.S. government and national interests for a better, safer world? Or will we risk sacrificing the bulk of recommendations we all agree on for the one where disputes remain?
Getting it right this time is at the top of our holiday wish lists. Here's hoping for a widely-shared New Year's resolution that we’ll let "auld" disputes be forgot, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, and work for real foreign aid reform.


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