At the first joint public appearance of the U.S. foreign assistance triumvirate this week, Henrietta Fore, acting director of foreign assistance and acting administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, John Danilovich, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and Mark Dybul, U.S. global AIDS coordinator, argued U.S. foreign assistance reform is just beginning and this administration and the next must do more to fix our foreign assistance architecture. Fore's confirmation hearing, however, suggests this process may be slower than anticipated.
Speaking together at the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign and Center for U.S. Global Engagement's annual conference, the top three leaders of U.S. foreign assistance responded to questions from Brookings' Lael Brainard about the growing role of the Department of Defense in development (notably absent from the panel), the impact of expanding involvement of foundations and celebrities on the global poverty agenda, and what further steps must be taken to reform our foreign assistance.
The following stood out for me:
Success of U.S. foreign assistance reform may depend on its communications strategy. The three foreign aid leaders were surprised to learn they had never before appeared together in public, speaking volumes about the attention they've given to outwardly portraying a more unified, strategic approach as the top spokespeople of three major U.S. foreign aid efforts. It also struck me that the strong support the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has from Congress and their constituents may be in part because Dybul positions the program as not just saving lives, but building health systems, creating broader development impacts such as child survival, and promoting economic prosperity, peace and security for the U.S. and developing countries--and he uses a hefty amount of data to back it all up. A similarly strong communications technique might serve the broader foreign assistance efforts well.
As has been said before, bolder steps are needed to reform U.S. foreign assistance and those steps may depend on the next administration. CGD's Steve Radelet and others have argued deeper structural reforms of U.S. foreign assistance are needed (see Radelet's congressional testimony on foreign assistance reform). At the event this week, Fore said she was focused on leaving behind a "strong foundation for furthering foreign assistance." Jim Kunder, acting deputy administrator for USAID who filled in for Fore later in the panel, argued that we must clarify the "multiplicity of objectives" we currently have for foreign assistance including revising the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, considering creating a cabinet-level Department for Development Assistance, and mobilizing public understanding and support for U.S. foreign assistance. (Watch Jim Kunder and other conference footage).
At Fore's confirmation hearing, however, there was little discussion of these next steps outside a brief mention of the need for increased USAID operating expenses for the agency to regain its intellectual leadership (see Fore's remarks). The foreign assistance crowd in the audience appeared disappointed that much of the hearing focused more on Fore's past than on her future plans for foreign assistance reform. Specifically, questions examined:
- Allegations that twenty to thirty USAID employees attended two White House-organized political briefings focused on the domestic electoral landscape ("at risk" congressional districts, etc.). (See Washington Post article on briefings.)
- Fore's past management experience and specifically her diversity record and the passport fiasco. (See Washington Post articles on diversity record and passports.)
Senator Casey (D-PA) did question Fore on the fragmented U.S. foreign assistance structure, referencing a "spider chart" of the many agencies and organizations involved in foreign assistance as well as the Washington Post article on "Hill, Aid Groups: One Opaque System Replaced Another." Chairman Menendez (D-NJ) asked Fore to discuss the balance between counter-terrorism and poverty-alleviation priorities, how the poverty-alleviation goal would be evaluated and potential closing of USAID missions, but little was revealed in response. Senator Hagel (R-NE) focused on Iraqi resettlement in the U.S. and USAID programs in Afghanistan (and was disappointed to hear Fore list poppy eradication among the successes in Afghanistan). Both Menendez and Hagel demanded stronger, better answers from Fore and her confirmation clearly hinges on providing them.
If I were a betting woman, I'd put my chips on a slow confirmation process at best. What this means is that the U.S. foreign assistance process lacks momentum and much of the hope for significant progress may depend on the platforms of the 2008 presidential candidates. Efforts like Impact 08 recognize this and are urging the presidential candidates to put forth a bolder agenda for U.S. foreign assistance so that it can help build a better, safer, more prosperous America and world.