Poe and Kolbe: Shedding More Light on U.S. Foreign Aid

Posted October 19, 2011 at 6:11pm

The United States faces myriad challenges around the globe. We are engaged in military conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. We are pursuing terrorists in far corners of the world. We respond when other countries need help by offering humanitarian aid to cope with crises — from famine in the Horn of Africa to earthquakes in Haiti and tsunamis in Japan. At the same time, we compete with China and other emerging economies to maintain our position as an influential and powerful force in the global economy. Clearly, the need for effective U.S. global engagement is more important than ever.

Meanwhile, at home, we are confronted with a skyrocketing domestic budget deficit that places enormous pressure on all areas of the federal government’s budget. While re-evaluating how we spend American tax dollars at home, we must also closely examine how and where we spend our international assistance budget.

The basic question is this: How can the U.S. maintain leadership overseas while adjusting to the shrinking federal budget at home? We believe the answer must be through smart and strategic reforms that make foreign aid programs more efficient and effective. The bottom line is that America cannot continue to advance our political, economic and security interests abroad without serious and long-overdue reform of foreign assistance programs. We believe that the best path forward is through enhanced coordination, accountability and transparency on both sides of the assistance equation — donor and recipient.

Since the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961, foreign aid programs have spread across 12 departments, 25 agencies and almost 60 federal offices. However, according to the conclusions of an independent study commissioned by USAID, “current monitoring and evaluation of most U.S. foreign assistance is uneven across agencies, rarely assesses impact, lacks sufficient rigor, and does not produce the necessary analysis to inform strategic decision-making.”

There are encouraging examples of effective monitoring and evaluation programs to be found, such as the Millennium Challenge Corp.’s Impact Evaluations and USAID’s new Evaluation Policy, but there is no clearly defined set of standards that is applied to all foreign assistance programs that would allow policymakers to make rational choices in a world of limited resources.

What’s more, most foreign assistance programs operate in the dark. No one really knows how the money got there in the first place or where it is going. In a recent comparative study by the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development, the U.S. ranked 22nd out of 31 countries when it came to transparency of its foreign assistance programs.

On Jan. 11, the State Department and USAID launched the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a public, online resource that allows users to examine foreign assistance investments in an accessible and easy-to-understand format. Although the site is a good start, by USAID’s own admission, it is incomplete — the site includes only aid programs from two of the 25 federal agencies that administer aid.

The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act gets at both of these problems. First, it requires the president to establish — and the heads of federal agencies to implement — guidelines on establishing measurable goals, performance metrics and monitoring and evaluation plans for all foreign assistance programs. Second, it codifies what is currently being done through the State Department and USAID’s Dashboard initiative. It would make foreign aid more transparent by increasing the amount of information available to the public, including country-development plans, Congressional budget justifications, actual expenditures and reports and evaluations by subjecting all agencies responsible for aid programs to exposure on the Dashboard.

There is growing bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress for other reform ideas, as well. Research has shown that the earlier a government-administered program engages the private sector, the more likely it is that the program is going to lead to sustainable economic improvement. It is also common sense to require that recipient countries take proactive measures to combat corruption and promote financial transparency so that we have some assurance our foreign assistance dollars are not being diverted or wasted. These are just a few examples of reforms that have the support of taxpayers, the administration and nongovernmental organizations.

Many of these reform proposals would enhance the efforts that the Obama administration has undertaken through two forward-looking initiatives — the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Congressional action is needed, however, to ensure that the reforms enjoy bipartisan political support and have a lasting effect by codifying them into law.

Given the challenges that our country faces domestically and around the globe, it is necessary that we modernize and reform our foreign aid system, which is a relic of the Cold War. We need a leaner system where money is spent strategically in places where it is in the national interest of the United States. There must be measureable goals and ways to monitor the success (or lack thereof) of the assistance. We must make the foreign aid process more efficient and stretch our dollar further. Making the United States’ foreign aid process more strategic and efficient will strengthen our ability to confront global problems, overcome them and help lead the world to a brighter future.

Rep. Ted Poe (R) represents Texas’ 2nd district. Former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R), a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and co-chairman of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, represented Arizona’s 8th district from 1985 to 2007.