Where is the Opening for Aid Reform?

by Diana Ohlbaum

It’s hard to reconcile the optimism of the development community with the signals coming from the Trump administration. Sensing an opening for reform, think tanks and aid advocates have issued three new reports on how to strengthen foreign assistance programs and agencies. Each assumes that the administration seeks to use aid dollars wisely to help more people around the world escape poverty, hunger, conflict, and disease.

Yet the White House seems to have an appetite only for chaos, callousness, and cuts. Global development is nowhere on the president’s radar screen. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recaps, “The president signaled early on that military might, not diplomatic deftness, was his thing.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is either cut out, tapped out, or checked out. The State Department has never been less influential on U.S. foreign policy, less engaged in international diplomacy, less protective of its own budget, less willing to use available resources, less committed to human rights and democracy, less open to the press, less eager to fill key slots, less efficient in its functioning, less welcoming of new talent, or less respectful of its career employees. This is not a secretary who will leave a legacy of revitalizing aid.

In this environment, the only conceivable audience for reform proposals is Congress, which has demonstrated bipartisan support for international affairs spending, laid the groundwork for food aid reform, and recognized the importance of global development to U.S. national security. On foreign policy in general, and foreign aid in particular, both parties and both houses of Congress are still able to work together to get things done, even against the president’s wishes.

Enter the report of an independent task force, commissioned by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Todd Young (R-IN) and directed by Daniel Runde at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), on increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance (disclaimer: I am a senior associate at CSIS and participated in all the task force discussions, but did not sign the final report). Like a recent proposal from the co-chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), reviewed here, the CSIS task force report offers a thoughtful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, a sound set of fundamental principles to guide any reform, and a constructive list of recommendations for specific improvements.

Many of those recommendations make good sense and merit widespread endorsement:

  • Maintain the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as an independent agency, and give it more power and authority.
  • Stop creating new structures and initiatives outside its control.
  • Clarify the division of labor between the various agencies and departments and reduce duplication of efforts.
  • Modernize the personnel systems, make the procurement system more efficient, and streamline reporting.

Yet, like the MFAN co-chairs’ proposal, the CSIS task force report overlooks or underestimates some perplexing details.

For instance, it calls on the USAID administrator to lead the preparation of a strategy for advancing global development. Such a strategy, which has been a mainstay of advocacy from the development community, would be designed to ensure the coherence and consistency of U.S. policy and enable greater selectivity and focus of programs.

But the strategy would only be meaningful if it were to include all relevant government departments and agencies. That means it must apply to humanitarian and civic aid programs run by the Pentagon, multilateral bank lending overseen by the Treasury Department, trade policies and preferences coordinated by the U.S. Trade Representative, farm subsidies supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other domestic policies with global impact. It’s inconceivable that any USAID administrator—even if designated as coordinator of foreign assistance, as the report recommends—would have the gravitas to get all those Cabinet secretaries in a room together, let alone get them to align their policies across the spectrum of development goals. Successful whole-of-government initiatives, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Power Africa, and Feed the Future, have required strong leadership and direction from the White House as well as narrow targeting at a clearly defined problem within a particular sector in a limited group of priority countries.

Which raises the larger question: why would anyone want an administration that cares so little about development to produce such a strategy? Wouldn’t it be far wiser to hope that USAID can labor on in obscurity, doing the right thing without being shackled to a plan that, contrary to the intent of the report’s authors, will inevitably be driven by the State Department and National Security Council? If ever there were a time to be careful what you wish for, this is it.

Second, shifting State Department programs into USAID, including those currently managed by the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, is attractive in a theoretical sort of way. But it seems an awfully big political lift for something that could be achieved through better coordination instead of consolidation. Not only the State Department, but also large swaths of the global health, humanitarian, and human rights communities will fight this proposal, creating rifts and divisions among groups that desperately need to present a united front for enlightened aid and diplomacy.

Similarly, naming the USAID administrator as coordinator of all foreign assistance, other than security assistance, poses both substantive and practical hurdles. On substance, security assistance needs to be coordinated with development and economic assistance, not treated as a separate and unrelated matter. Preventing, mitigating, and responding to armed conflict, violent extremism, civil strife, and humanitarian crisis requires routine collaboration between military and civilian units. And in practice, a USAID administrator, even with a permanent seat on the National Security Council, would be unlikely to have either the requisite background to oversee security programs or the political stature to exercise authority over Cabinet-level departments. Just ask Reince Priebus: having the power to call a meeting doesn’t guarantee that anyone will show up for it.

Ultimately, the CSIS task force report lacks not in good intentions, bold ideas, or wise principles, but in political pragmatism. It may be useful as a warning against or a counterweight to ill-advised reorganization plans from the administration. But what is most needed now is a menu of actionable options for Congress to save U.S. diplomacy and development from evisceration.

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