And the Foreign Affairs Reorganization Fight Is On!

by Diana Ohlbaum

Buffeted by a double whammy of restructuring proposals—one from the White House recommending a transfer of the State Department’s Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau (PRM) to the Department of Homeland Security, another from development experts recommending a merger of PRM’s programs into the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—the heavyweights are striking back.

A bipartisan group of 62 former diplomats, national security officials, and humanitarians is calling on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to leave PRM right where it is, retaining its current responsibilities. “Any reorganization plan,” they argue, “should seek to validate and reaffirm the role of PRM.”

This is just the beginning of the unraveling that could occur if aid- and development-friendly groups continue pressing for wholesale reorganization of the foreign policy bureaucracy in an environment of chaos and callousness from the administration. Ideas that make sense on paper, or that might blossom in the hands of officials committed to improving rather than dismantling the system, could serve to divide the international affairs community at a pivotal moment for U.S. global leadership.

On the other hand, the reform proposals do constitute a countervailing force against the bluster of the administration, and they are reaching critical mass. Yet another set of recommendations has been released, this time from the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA), a longstanding body that serves as a link between the U.S. government and private voluntary organizations active in humanitarian and development work overseas.

Coming on the heels of reports from the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the Center for Global Development (CGD), the ACVFA statement both reinforces the top-level priorities of the previous reports and offers useful new ideas for consideration. Although it encourages the federal government to “work towards the consolidation of assistance into a lead agency” and “assess a variety of potential designs for how currently overlapping functions…could be streamlined,” it makes no mention of changing PRM’s status.

Its calls for elevating USAID’s administrator to cabinet rank, giving USAID authority to oversee and coordinate all U.S. development and humanitarian programs across agencies, integrating the Millennium Challenge Corporation and global AIDS office into USAID, producing a U.S. global development strategy, creating a development finance corporation, and increasing flexibility in food aid, inter alia, echo the recommendations of the other reports.

But where the ACVFA report really shines is in its small-bore proposals for specific reforms that don’t require changes in mandates and reporting lines. Its suggestion for establishing a data analytics unit in USAID to promote data sharing among U.S. government agencies is a smart way of bringing more evidence into decision-making. The unit would also enable better comparison of foreign assistance programs carried out by various departments and programs and demonstrate USAID’s capacity for interagency leadership.

Similarly, the report’s call to “require all agencies delivering U.S. assistance to track and report on country ownership and sustainability through a set of robust metrics and ex-post evaluations” would generate precisely the types of data that the new unit in USAID would collect and analyze.

Also worthy of special note is ACVFA’s recommendation to “use the 5-year Country Development and Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) to drive U.S. budget allocations within a country.” This, of course, is much easier said than done, since presidential initiatives and congressional directives control how the vast majority of funds are spent. But it mirrors the concept, first laid out in former Rep. Howard Berman’s (D-CA) 2012 rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, of dividing the development assistance budget into two parts: one that would be apportioned according to the country strategies, the other reflecting the sector-based priorities that Congress imposes each year at the behest of outside groups.

Sadly, there’s very little that’s new under the sun: the Berman bill (later re-introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA)) also gave USAID direct control over its budget; authorized the USAID administrator to coordinate all U.S. development-related activities; encouraged the president to invite the administrator to participate in all appropriate meetings of the National Security Council and to appoint the administrator as alternate U.S. governor of each of the multilateral development banks; required a quadrennial diplomacy, development, and security review, as well as a U.S. strategy for global development; and removed many of the key administrative impediments to greater efficiency and effectiveness. That bill was dead on arrival—killed not so much by Republicans as by a Democratic administration, several of whose senior advisors had previously endorsed similar principles.

It is conceivable that a few congressional Republicans might see political advantage in reviving ideas to which Hillary Clinton was implacably opposed. But until there is a real opening for constructive cooperation between parties and branches of government, development and humanitarian advocates ought to focus on shoring up, not carving up, embattled agencies.

Photo: Rex Tillerson (Wikimedia Commons)

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum