Bono argues in Sunday’s New York Times that President Obama has already taken major and very welcome steps to “rebrand” America in the eyes of the world. How? By making this statement at the United Nations:
“We will support the Millennium Development Goals, and approach next year’s summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.”
And by appointing a team of people in the National Security Council, the Departments of State and Defense who have spoken out about the central position of development in U.S. foreign policy. Says Bono:
“From a development perspective, you couldn’t dream up a better dream team to pursue peace this way, to rebrand America.”
That “dream team” has some work to do. Let’s start with progress toward “country ownership” of aid programs and a “whole of government” approach, which are routinely invoked in discussions of the administrations initiatives in global health, agriculture and food security, and aid more generally. The administration has to find ways to demonstrate what its approach to aid looks like, and how it differs – if at all – from the orientation of the Bush years.
Here’s one way to do that part of the rebranding: Unbrand.
Unbranding means ending the practice of using multiple logos and labeling projects with clever acronyms. Under aid programs initiated during the Bush administration, including and particularly the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Account, branding has become rampant. It is common for the vehicles and equipment purchased using U.S. dollars, and the infrastructure built, to be prominently labeled with the distinctive logos not only of the branded programs themselves, but also the insignias of one or more of the multiple agencies channeling the funds (USAID, CDC, HRSA, DOD). These are layered on top of the long-time practice of contractors and “cooperating agencies” applying their own organizational logos as frequently as possible as well as the names of five-year projects. It is honestly quite hard to believe aid programs are “country owned” or follow a coherent “whole of government” approach when every poster, SUV, training manual, and building sign is covered with a half-dozen seals of U.S. organizations.
Unbranding could start with the stroke of a pen, and is in control of the executive branch. Ambassador Eric Goosby, head of PEPFAR, and Daniel Yohannes, MCC CEO nominee, could get the ball rolling by issuing guidance to partner agencies and contractors: From this point forward, no branding of new purchases. Whoever joins the “dream team” as USAID administrator, can make administrative changes to stop the costly practice of naming five-year projects and permitting each implementing organization to create a whole new project identity with every winning bid.
We are unlikely to see complete unbranding, and there is admittedly a foreign policy rationale for making visible to aid recipients the generosity and goodwill of the U.S. taxpayer. But if this administration wants to rebrand America, it’s time to make the stuff procured with our aid dollars look more like it belongs to the countries we’re trying to help and less like pop-up ads for U.S.A. Inc and its wholly-owned subsidiaries.