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Foreign Aid Reform Already Paying Sequestration Price

March 01, 2013
I’m guessing I’m not the only one still in a state of denial that sequestration will actually happen. The across-the-board cuts—if and when they happen tonight—will hit my own household (I’m married to my favorite bureaucrat) and the US foreign aid programs I monitor here. Other groups are closely tracking how much foreign aid might be cut (roughly $1.7 billion) and the accounts and lives that will be affected. Regardless of whether Congress is crying wolf with the latest budget showdown, US foreign aid reform may already be paying a price. The optimist in me hoped budget pressure could propel real and smart aid reform, including possible cuts such as those proposed by some of my colleagues. But I worry the blunt cuts not only get away from these thoughtful approaches but undermine the reform efforts that have been built over the last decade. Here's how:
  • More planning than doing. The ongoing budget uncertainty for FY13 (let alone FY14) means US agencies are stuck in perpetual planning mode with some waiting, more contingency planning and more waiting in between. I have no doubt that US aid workers are finding impressive ways to keep things going, but the unresolved budget takes time and attention from US development agency staff and leaders who might otherwise be focused on implementing programs and improving practice.
  • More of the old, less of the new. The only certainty right now is that the US foreign aid budget will be smaller than before, which likely means we'll be seeing much more of the old programs struggling to survive (and constituents struggling to protect them, too) while new approaches, programs and priorities may have trouble getting off the ground. New isn't always better, but there is widespread agreement that the United States needs to upgrade its foreign aid and global development policies for the 21st century.  The upgrade doesn’t need to cost a lot in dollar terms, but does require having the right staff in place which may be the first thing to go (or at least slow) with sequestration budget cuts.
  • Whither reform? Aid is about more than money; how the United States designs its aid programs is as important as how much it spends. The Obama administration launched important reform efforts in its first years in office--calling for more selectivity, transparency, learning and innovation, including through USAID Forward--but the constant budget crisis keeps the focus (especially on and around the Hill) on money, with less time, energy or attention left for the rest.
I'm not the first to point out that the ever-changing and never-resolved budget process is bad for running government. But the threat of sequestration--whether or not it is realized tonight--may already be getting a bigger bang for its development cuts by distracting from US foreign aid reform.  

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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 is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.