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Steve RadeletThe global economic crisis presents a challenge and an opportunity to do better with U.S. assistance to Africa said CGD senior fellow Steve Radelet in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health last week. Not surprisingly, doing better in Africa requires the same steps towards broad U.S. foreign assistance reform that Radelet and others have been urging for months. Meanwhile, testimony from Secretary of State Clinton, a new GAO report calling for foreign aid reform, and a promise from Rep. Berman to introduce legislation for a comprehensive U.S. development strategy indicate a lot of toe tapping, one step forward, and some missing partners in the U.S. foreign aid reform dance.

Chairman Payne convened the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health to determine how Africa fits into the larger debate on foreign aid reform. He said:

We are particularly interested in the effectiveness of U.S. assistance to the continent—a discussion that is inevitable, particularly as we tighten our belts in response to the global economic downturn.

Ranking member Smith spoke of peace, prosperity and wellness in the U.S. and Africa and expressed his concern for the health of African women in particular. And Rep. Watson added that the economic changes in the U.S. have repercussions around the world and USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief perform vital but disjointed tasks.

Testimony PanelEarl Gast, senior deputy assistant administrator for Africa at USAID, testified before the subcommittee on the influx of U.S. development assistance to Africa and ongoing challenges related to global health, poverty, population, democracy and conflict. While the content of Gast’s remarks was good, it’s what went unspoken that is the most relevant: in the absence of an appointed USAID administrator, the vision for its future and reforming assistance to Africa remains uncertain.

In Radelet’s testimony, he reminded the committee of the good news out of Africa that often goes unnoticed—dramatic increases in democracies, improved macroeconomic management, and the end of huge debt burdens—but said better U.S. assistance to Africa (and elsewhere) would require seven steps for broad U.S. foreign assistance reform:

  1. Put someone in charge of development by quickly naming a strong USAID administrator with a seat at the NSC.
  2. Craft a national strategy for global development.
  3. Build a strong legislative foundation with a new Foreign Assistance Act.
  4. Organize for success with a strong, consolidated, empowered U.S. development agency.
  5. Implement different approaches for different country contexts.
  6. Leverage the multilateral institutions.
  7. More resources, better spent.

Radelet was joined on the panel by Ousmane Badiane, Africa director at the International Food Policy Research Institute; Meredeth Turshen, professor at the Rutgers University; and Bill O’Keefe, senior director of policy and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services (full testimony from all panelists available here. O’Keefe provided three complimentary reform principles for the committee in his testimony:

  1. Do no harm. This includes preserving the role of faith-based organizations that provide many of the health services in developing countries.
  2. Throw out the cookie cutter. People are not “single-sector beings” and the U.S. needs a variety of approaches for different contexts.
  3. Maximize comparative advantages. Foreign assistance reform must allow for innovation and coordination between and among other donors, local groups, etc.

While there were many committee members present at the start of the hearing, voting and other delays meant only Rep. Payne remained for extended discussion with Radelet, Badiane, Turshen and O’Keefe. Rep. Payne and the witnesses discussed the complex appropriations process for foreign assistance as contrasted with defense appropriations, the difficulty of selling American voters on roads and other infrastructure programs even though they can have long-term development benefits for poor countries, praise for the recent commercial debt deal in Liberia (see Radelet blog on Liberia’s Debt Buy Back),and U.S. support for democracy and education programs. Absent, however, were questions about what, if any, progress was being made on broader reform and how these issues might fit into such efforts.

So, foreign assistance aficionados were likely looking elsewhere last week for clues on the prospects for the extreme makeover of U.S. foreign assistance. Specifically, eyes were on Secretary Clinton’s testimony before the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, a new GAO report calling for broader foreign aid reform, and Rep. Berman’s promise to introduce legislation calling for a comprehensive U.S. strategy for development.

Clinton’s testimony covered the administration’s foreign policy priorities writ large, but she received several questions focused on foreign assistance reform. Clinton spoke of her support for development and willingness to discuss with the committee how to make foreign assistance better but I think many were disappointed at the lack of specifics and her statement that “it’s going to take a couple of years.”

The GAO’s new report “Foreign Aid Reform: Comprehensive Strategy, Interagency Coordination, and Operational Improvements Would Bolster Current Efforts” requested by Rep. Berman and Sen. Menendez recommends a comprehensive, government-wide foreign assistance strategy, clear goals and measures for foreign assistance, and a time frame for implementing the reforms. In Rep. Berman’s press release about the GAO report, he says:

This report underscores the need for a foreign assistance strategy that lays out the purpose and goal of the aid we provide to other countries. I will soon introduce legislation to ensure that the United States has a comprehensive strategy to reduce global poverty and promote broad-based economic growth in developing countries.

The legislation would mark an important move towards creating a national strategy for global development—something Radelet and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network have called for as a key pillar of reform. Rumor has it that the legislation could be introduced as early as tonight.

So where does all this activity leave us? I would argue that the congressional hearings show continued interest and rhetoric on the issues; the GAO report is another strong voice in a chorus of experts calling for reform; and the promised Berman legislation is perhaps the first concrete step towards modernizing foreign assistance with a national strategy for global development. Glaringly absent however is the appointment of a USAID administrator (or head of MCC or PEPFAR for that matter). All in all, there is a lot of toe tapping (both in step with the music and growingly impatient), one step forward on a national strategy for global development, but we’re still missing some key partners (and someone to lead) the foreign aid reform dance.

[I encourage you to read my colleague Ruth Levine’s related blog on What Will Happen to Specialized Health Agencies with a Major U.S. Foreign Assistance Reform?]

Update 4/28/09: Late last night, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Eric Goosby as Ambassador at Large and Global AIDS Coordinator in charge of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

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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.