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On Friday, USAID Administrator and Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance Henrietta Fore unveiled to a standing-room-only CGD audience her much-awaited strategy for revitalizing our outdated foreign assistance apparatus in a speech titled Foreign Assistance: An Agenda for Reform. Four major actions drive her modernization plan:

  • Increasing the foreign assistance budget to meet the challenges of the 21st century to ensure "that development is an equal and essential element of our national security strategy and budget";
  • Rebuilding the capacity of USAID -- the FY09 budget released today requests the largest personnel increase ever, a doubling of the USAID training budget and a "surge capacity" to respond rapidly in crisis situations;
  • Streamlining budget and planning processes, with a shifting of emphasis to the field; and
  • Reestablishing U.S. intellectual leadership on foreign assistance.

This last item is particularly important. However the organizational boxes are eventually arrayed, having a clearly articulated strategy that enjoys broad public support across the political spectrum will be crucial to any successful reform effort. Fore described her program this way:

We need to reclaim the mantle of foreign assistance intellectual leadership. This will include activities such as developing a multi-year Global Assistance Strategy, developing multi-year country strategies and developing the first Economic Growth Strategy for USAID… A common framework and definitions supports better program coordination, clearer communication as to what we budget and plan to achieve across agencies and a more productive discussion over competing priorities....(1 minute 50 seconds).

The new Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance seems to believe, like a growing number of development experts and policymakers, that now is the time to seize the opportunity of many voices together calling to elevate global development and foreign assistance as national interest priorities. What will it take? Fore seems to suggest that organizational structure (see, for example, the Birdsall and Radelet call for a Cabinet-level Department of Global Development), isn't the most important element of reform. More important in her view is forging a new alliance between the Executive branch, Congress and special interest groups to change the way we do our foreign aid business:

We are ALL accountable for being a part of the solution -- focusing less on defending specific regions, specific sectors, and specific programs -- and more on reform priorities that meet the most critical needs at ground level. I believe we have an opportunity, right here and now, to build a new American constituency for global development (30 seconds).

Modernizing U.S. foreign assistance is a tall order with a short delivery time for Fore and her team. But I think they are teeing up a respectable effort for the next administration to run with. And while the debate will certainly continue over how to structure the organization for managing foreign assistance, it is remarkable that there is such broad agreement on a set of modernization principles that can be pursued regardless of the organizational structure: elevating global development's status as a national interest priority; aligning foreign assistance policy, operations, and budgets; committing sufficient and flexible resources with accountability for results; and rationalizing organizational structures.
We at CGD are vitally interested in this process. Indeed, it is at the core of our mission to improve the rich world's development policies and practice. To this end -- and to bring together in a single place our ongoing work, information, and advice on U.S. foreign assistance reform efforts, CGD launched a new initiative last week, Modernizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. Let us know what you think!

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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.