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Hundreds of development advocates gathered in Crystal City last week for the annual InterAction Forum urged a fresh effort to bring U.S. foreign assistance efforts into the 21st century.
At a luncheon plenary session during the conference, Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) summarized:

Foreign assistance is more important to America's national security and foreign policy than ever before. But our Cold-War mechanisms aren't up to the challenge.

While Congresswoman McCollum supports the creation of a new cabinet-level agency for global development, she said that the challenges go beyond structure and require a new overarching strategy -- and foreign assistance act -- to guide U.S. foreign assistance. "Half-way reforms won't cut it," McCollum said, urging the NGO-dominated crowd to work for comprehensive modernization.
In remarks on "The Future of Foreign Aid," CGD Senior Fellow Steve Radelet and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and former HELP Commissioner Gayle Smith said that if reforms are partial, they will fail. Together they called for a "grand bargain" between the next U.S. president, the Congress, and the American people to agree on the overarching principles and strategy to guide U.S. foreign assistance, pass new foreign assistance legislation; reorganize U.S. assistance, and ensure adequate resources.
Joe Lockhart, a founding partner with the Glover Park Group, which specializes in media relations and political strategy, brought a healthy dose of political realism to the conversation he moderated between Radelet and Smith. His main points:

  1. Where will U.S. foreign assistance modernization be in the growing list of priorities for a new administration? Iraq, Iran, the Middle East peace process, gas prices and energy independence are just a few of the many priorities a new administration will need to address.
  2. Naming and framing U.S. foreign assistance modernization. Lockhart joked that for the effort to be successful, we have to find a new name for "foreign assistance" because Americans are wary of two things: foreign, and government assistance. While I think there is a growing constituency of Americans interested in global development in our national interest, I agree that a little renaming might go a long way. Pulling from Lockhart's suggestion that we talk about "global investments," Steve Radelet suggested we name the new cabinet-level agency the Department of Global Investment (aka "DOGI") which elicited some laughter from the acronym-loving Washington audience (though luckily no barking). In all seriousness however, the point that U.S. global development policies must be framed as part of the U.S. national interest and named more appropriately is advice well-worth heeding.
  3. Modernizing U.S. foreign assistance will require multiple constituencies pushing for multiple reasons. Lockhart emphasized that support for updating the system would have to come not just from development advocates, but faith-based groups, foundations, private sector organizations, and of course, a wide range of U.S. policymakers.

USAID Administrator and Director of Foreign Assistance Henrietta Fore also encouraged the InterAction Forum audience to "seize the moment" to strike a grand bargain to reform U.S. foreign assistance. She highlighted the paradox of complexity in which development and foreign assistance aims to fulfill the most basic needs -- food, shelter, medicine and basic human rights -- while the complexity of delivering aid increases every year. She explained:

The complexity of the issues we face now, on a truly global scale, is unprecedented. Food, energy, climate, technology, growth, wealth and wellbeing -- they're all more interconnected than ever. So it must be true that the solutions we seek will be more interdependent than ever. And well beyond the reach of any single organization.

Fore argued that overcoming this complexity "won't be settled simply through structural changes, more funding or new legislation," but would require a new way of doing business between donors, contractors, agencies and NGOs, host governments, private sector interests and foundations. She emphasized the need to share knowledge of what works, best practice, and results, saying "we reduce complexity when we share that vital knowledge, transcend the partisan and parochial, and put outcomes first."
A few weeks ago, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) made a similar call for renewed focus on independent evaluation of development impact in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on modernizing U.S. foreign assistance (see Steve Radelet's Congressional Testimony). The new International Initiative for Impact Evaluation or "3IE" is one concrete effort underway to do just that, having grown out of a CGD working group and now supported by growing list of members, including developing country ministries, donor countries, philanthropic foundations, and development NGOs.
So what are the big take-aways from the InterAction Forum? First, global development fans should heed Joe Lockhart's admonitions to frame and name the efforts under way in terms that resonate with the American people and reflect the national interest, including a national security interest. Second, more needs to be done to demonstrate growing support for better U.S. global development policies among diverse American constituencies so that bringing U.S. foreign assistance into the 21st century is a priority in the next administration.
So why, despite this healthy dose of political realism, is there still reason to be optimistic?

  1. No one is arguing for the status quo. The InterAction Forum is just the latest venue at which NGOs, contractors, government officials and foundations are all talking about the need for dramatic modernization of U.S. foreign assistance, even if they don't yet see eye-to-eye on all the nitty-gritty details. The HELP Commission, CSIS Smart Power Report, CGD Weak States Commission, and Impact 08 policy framework are just a few of the many reports in Washington that all come to the same conclusion: U.S. foreign assistance must be dramatically retooled to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
  2. All three of the U.S. presidential candidates are talking about the need to improve America’s image and security in large part through improved U.S. foreign assistance.
  3. Members of Congress are taking notice. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Berman (D-CA) is leading the charge on the House side to reauthorize and reorient foreign assistance. He is joined by ranking member Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Betty McCollum (D-MN) and several other members who are well-informed and eager to renew U.S. leadership on foreign assistance. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee have also been tracking the issues and are coming to the same conclusions.
    Members of the executive branch recognize the same challenges and needs to modernize U.S foreign assistance. In addition to Fore's remarks above, Defense Secretary Gates (see CGD's blog) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have both recognized the need for dramatic reform.
  4. The ONE Campaign, Bread for the World, InterAction members and other groups are working tirelessly to cultivate and coordinate a broad-based American constituency. Oxfam America recently released a great "Foreign Aid 101" that helps translate what Americans concerned about global poverty need to know about U.S. foreign aid policy. The InterAction Forum also coordinated 80-some meetings between attendees and congressional staff to further discuss these issues. And the InterAction Forum also got a sneak peak at a new YouTube video created by CGD for the Global Development Matters website that helps make the case that U.S. foreign assistance policy from the 1960s just won't do for today. (Stay tuned to the CGD and Global Development Matters website for the official launch in early June!)

If we heed Lockhart's advice, a better name for "foreign assistance" is still needed. Any ideas out there? And still more needs to be done to demonstrate the growing support for the issues from the American people. But the conversation is happening and momentum for bringing U.S. foreign assistance into the 21st century is growing. Hashing out all the details of what modern U.S. foreign assistance will be a tough slog, but these have been a few more steps in the right direction.

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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.