In recent years we have seen a welcome renaissance in American foreign assistance, which was starved for funds during the 1990s. Members of both parties have supported new programs and new spending, and American efforts overseas today are helping to fight disease and hunger and end the poverty that can be a seedbed for terrorism. Development, along with defense and diplomacy, is now a pillar of our national security policy.
But even as we have rediscovered the importance of foreign assistance, we find ourselves with a frail foundation to support this robust development strategy. We have increased funds for development and elevated its priority, while allowing the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—the agency housing most of our development expertise—to atrophy.
USAID’s staff, which numbered nearly 3,300 in 1990, fell to below 2,000 by 2001, and last year stood at just 2,367. There are only five engineers left; twenty-three education officers are tasked with overseeing different programs in 84 countries, one analysis found. The agency has lost to the State Department its own capacity for budgeting, policy, planning and evaluation. Much of the work of running America’s development programs is now farmed out to private contractors.
As a result of USAID’s diminished strength, foreign assistance programs have diffused throughout some two dozen other agencies and government departments, including the Pentagon, and USAID directly manages less than half our foreign assistance spending. Each of these agencies naturally considers itself the lead agency in its sector, provoking competition among agencies rather than coordination and coherence. We don’t really know whether these programs are complementary or working at cross-purposes.
For development to play its full role in our national security structure, the implementing agency must be a strong one. As Secretary of State Clinton recently said, USAID should “be seen as the premier development agency in the world.” To make that happen, we must start with three important changes that I and my Senate colleagues John Kerry, Bob Corker and Robert Menendez have incorporated into legislation we will soon introduce, the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act.
--First, create a new “knowledge center” and internal evaluation system so the agency can take a comprehensive look at what programs work and why. This would supplement the current monitoring system which measures simple outputs—were the schoolbooks purchased and delivered on time?—with one that looks at policy outcomes—what impact did this education program have on literacy rates? Also, re-establish a policy and strategic planning bureau within USAID to apply lessons learned across countries and regions and project future needs and opportunities.
As Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been successful in large part because it set clear objectives and regularly evaluates progress. Prof. Sachs urged re-organizing our development effort strategically around a few key pillars—from agriculture to sustainable energy to promotion of sustainable businesses—in order to clarify our long-term aims and rigorously ensure that each specific program is contributing toward meeting them.
These changes will help eliminate ineffective programs and assure Congress and taxpayers that our money is supporting our humanitarian and national security goals.
--Second, make each USAID in-country mission director the coordinator for all U.S. assistance within the country, require all government agencies with foreign aid programs to make the details publicly available in a timely fashion, and create an independent evaluation and research group to analyze the effectiveness of foreign assistance programs across the government and promote best practices. USAID does not have to manage everything, but it must be the locus of expertise that can provide guidance on development policy.
--Third, replenish the troops. The bill calls for a new human resource strategy and high-level task force to advise on critical personnel issues, strengthens USAID’s hiring and personnel systems, and encourages innovative steps to build expertise and effectiveness.
These common-sense—and low-cost—improvements have the support of both liberals and conservatives in the Senate, and have been applauded by humanitarian and relief organizations. They are just first steps that do not pre-judge or conflict with the State Department’s current review of our diplomatic and development policy. A strong, independent foreign aid agency is critical to our long-term security, and my colleagues and I urge the Obama administration to give its full support to this legislation.
--Richard Lugar (R, Indiana) is the former chairman and current ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.