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At a packed event last week launching the Brookings-CSIS book Security by Other Means: Foreign Assistance, Global Poverty and American Leadership, attendees from think tanks, congressional committees, government agencies and NGOs discussed the challenges of transforming U.S. foreign aid for the 21st century. The biggest obstacle may be the inability to see foreign assistance, global poverty and American leadership as truly connected pieces of foreign aid reform.

The premise of the new book, edited by Lael Brainard of Brookings, with contributions from Patrick Cronin (International Institute for Strategic Studies), Larry Nowles (Congressional Research Service) and CGD’s own Steve Radelet and Owen Barder among others, is established in the executive summary:

While foreign assistance funding has seen the greatest increase in four decades, this has brought a proliferation of programs, policy incoherence and organizational fragmentation. Moving around the organizations boxes or increasing aid will do little to boost impact, unless there is broad agreement around a unified framework designed for 21st century challenges. This requires integrating the national security perspective of foreign assistance as a “soft power” tool intended to achieve diplomatic and strategic ends with that of a “development tool” allocated according to policy effectiveness and human needs.

Discussion at the event however, signaled that we are far from speaking of foreign aid reform, global poverty, and American leadership in a unified way. Rather, it was suggested that the book was intended to be a policymakers’ conversation on structural reform of foreign aid. Global poverty, however, should be addressed separately with the American people because it speaks to the heart and “sells” with them. And American leadership from the highest level of government (i.e. the president or senior White House staff) was identified as critical to foreign aid reform, but exists of its own accord, independent from the policymaker’s conversation of structural reform, and the American people’s conversation on poverty.
Until we are able to link the efforts of policymakers, the interests of the American people, and the actions of the administration, can we really expect to create a unified, coherent approach to U.S. foreign aid?
The full event transcript can be found here. CGD's Owen Barder describes the broader project here.

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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 does not take institutional positions.