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Two former administrators of the U.S. Agency for International Development -- Peter McPherson and Brian Atwood -- said the U.S. government should give greater prominence to development and rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 in their testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. Their testimony and other events around town signal growing momentum for a dramatic overhaul of U.S. foreign assistance.

The hearing on "Rebuilding U.S. Civilian Development and Diplomatic Capacity in the 21st Century" was convened by House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Chairman Howard Berman who previously helped launch the "New Day, New Way" proposal for modernizing U.S. foreign assistance where he promised to hold a series of hearings on reform. Nearly a dozen members of Congress attended the hearing with McPherson and Atwood, where the former USAID officials stressed the need to strengthen civilian capacity and warned against the growing role of the military in development in their testimonies (see Atwood's testimony here and McPherson’s testimony here).
At the hearing, members of Congress no longer asked "why" foreign aid needs revamping; instead, their questions begged for details of "how" to accomplish the reforms:

  • "What would you recommend to the new administration?" (Rep. Scott, D-GA)
  • "Would you support a regional focus or more country specific programs?" (Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL)
  • "How would you separate the roles more distinctly and clearly between the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and USAID?" (Rep. Costa, D-CA)
  • "By what process can we recognize and reconcile priorities [vis-a-vis the recent proliferation of initiatives]?" (Rep. Berman, D-CA)

Atwood and McPherson diverged on whether a cabinet-level independent development agency would be the best means forward (the former in favor and the latter for a revitalized USAID reporting to the State Department). Both recognized that their proposals were two of several potential ways to elevate development alongside diplomacy and defense, but that structure was a key component rather than the start and end of the reform debate. They grappled with issues such as how to craft a National Development Strategy, how to counterbalance authorities granted to the military with elevated development priorities, and how to rewrite the outdated Foreign Assistance Act in order for the U.S. to reengage on both moral and security terms to foster 21st century international cooperation.
A similar note was struck at the launch of InterAction's proposal for a cabinet-level department for development last week that includes details on the major components and organizational structure of such an independent agency. InterAction President Sam Worthington was keen to remind folks of the larger issues at stake and that "structure is not the end-game but rather a consequence of change."
Lael Brainard and Tony Gambino, the other panelists at the Interaction event, also spoke to the need for a more cohesive and strategic approach to development and the importance of development having a seat at the decision-making table alongside the Secretaries of Defense and State. In line with the HFAC hearing, the need to invest in civilian operational capacity was highlighted as critical in the current political context.
So the debate continues -- the Atwood and McPherson testimonies provide two options, one of which the paper by InterAction expands upon, offering a vision of how to implement reform. We hope that other interested parties in modernizing U.S. foreign assistance pipe up (including you our readers!) and contribute to what will undoubtedly be a lively and noisy debate. After all, what better way to have the U.S. president-elect take up the drum beat than if he is already dancing to the music before the inaugural ball?

Disclaimer

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.