The Future of US Foreign Aid: Moving Forward

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SEATTLE — The United States’ foreign assistance plays a major role in the international effort to alleviate global poverty. As arguably the world’s greatest power and political agenda setter, its decisions on foreign aid have major impacts throughout the globe. However, consistency and coordination among the more than 20 aid agencies have proven difficult when, every four to eight years, a new president is voted into office, bringing with them their own unique interpretation of how to orient their executive bureaucracy. The ephemeral nature of the bureaucratic system and the stark contrasts seen in presidential leadership in the recent past have made it difficult for the United States to commit to a set of “well-defined core priorities” that underlie its foreign aid system. With the millions of lives, abroad and domestically, that are affected by U.S. aid, decisions made by the Trump administration about the future of U.S. foreign aid carry heavy weight.

Recently, The Borgen Project had the chance to speak with the authors of the policy brief “A Practical Vision for U.S. Development Reform”, published by the Center for Global Development (CDG). The brief, written by CDG experts Cindy Huang, co-director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy and a senior policy fellow and Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow, discusses the future of U.S. foreign aid and details ways to increase coordination and incentive between the 20-plus government aid agencies. Huang and Konyndyk state in the brief: “To maintain its relevance in a changing global development landscape, U.S. foreign assistance should focus on four core development priorities: state fragility, inclusive growth, global health and humanitarian assistance.”

The Four Core Development Priorities

When the authors were asked to explain their choices for the four priorities of U.S. foreign assistance, Konyndyk said, “Of the four priorities, global health and humanitarian assistance are areas in which the U.S. has historically done excellent work and has a comparative advantage. Broadly speaking, the U.S. does good work, but it could be improved upon. State fragility and inclusive growth are the two areas which could be improved to meet the economic realities of the next 20 years and prepare for the future of U.S. foreign aid. Today, the U.S. should be shaping the growth of countries on a reasonably good path to development. The U.S. can do this through policy dialogue, foreign investment and conflict mitigation efforts to start to take on the role of a convening connector, not just a donor.”

Structural Fragmentation

The authors cited structural fragmentation throughout U.S. aid agencies as a major hindrance to the country’s ability to adapt to the changing development landscape. Huang explained that “in our brief, we outline what we call 14 immediately actionable reforms that would increase U.S development effectiveness. The overall point that the 14 points are trying to get across is that there is much fragmentation across 20 agencies. We suggest ways to increase coordination and incentive.”

Mr, Konyndyk added, “Basically, there are all of these institutions that do good work on their own horizons but might not make the most of their collective toolkit. An example of this would be PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) doing the same work in places, which can cause turf battles between the two agencies. This does nothing to advance the mission of development.”

What Is the Future of U.S. Foreign Aid?

Decisions made by Donald Trump during his first year and a half as president have revealed his administration’s view that funding for foreign aid should be reduced and the size of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) consolidated. But despite steps backwards, Huang does have a few things she feels optimistic about regarding the future of foreign aid. “For one thing, Mark Green [administrator of USAID]has a strong background in foreign aid and has been seriously digging into self-reliance for developing countries beyond just using that phrase as a platitude. Green has looked inward at USAID and asked ‘what can we do?'”

“Additionally”, Huang added, “I think it’s a positive sign that OPIC (The Overseas Private Investment Corporation) and the BUILD Act (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) in Congress have received support from the current administration.”

Konyndyk also expressed optimism, but stated plainly that “the Trump administration’s budget proposals have recommended 33 percent budget cuts to aid, you can’t move past that fact.”

Huang concluded that “So far, Congress has been the tiebreaker and has had a steady approach to foreign aid funding.”

Historically, foreign aid has been supported by the U.S. government for its humanitarian, economic and national defense benefits, among others. Though the Trump administration has at times taken a hostile approach to foreign aid, Congress has remained consistent in its support of the effort and affirmed its value through budgetary allocations. Looking towards the future, that congressional support must continue if the U.S. is to remain an impactful force in the fight to alleviate global poverty. Additionally, in the coming years, the U.S. foreign development architecture will need restructuring and a new set of priorities in order to equip itself for the future of U.S. foreign aid.

– Clarke Hallum 
Photo: Flickr

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