Modernizing U.S. Foreign Aid: The Challenges of a Changing World | Wilson Center

Modernizing U.S. Foreign Aid: The Challenges of a Changing World

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

On June 26, 2009, Wilson Center on the Hill hosted an event examining the issues and options in the challenge to reform the U.S. foreign aid program. The program featured a panel of two experts who discussed criteria and strategy for the upcoming reform. The panel consisted of Ray Offenheiser, the President of Oxfam America, and Diana Ohlbaum, a Senior Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The program was moderated by John Sewell, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

For the first time in many years there is wide agreement that U.S. foreign aid needs to be comprehensively reviewed and undergo major reform. The U.S. foreign aid program last underwent a comprehensive review in 1961 and it is clear that the world today is significantly different than it was at that time. The world is linked in ways it has never been before and the U.S. foreign assistance program itself has dynamically changed over the last five decades. Many more U.S. governmental agencies are now engaged in promoting development than ever before, which need to be addressed in the new reform. The "development business," as John Sewell called it, is also fundamentally different. The U.S. is no longer the major provider of foreign assistance in many countries and there are non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") engaged in development work throughout the world. According to Sewell, the need for reform is "obvious" -- the current bill is outdated and broken as a result of piecemeal amendments made for short-term fixes throughout the years.

Diana Ohlbaum opened her comments by emphasizing that the timing of this reform is essential. Not only are the Obama administration and Congress ready to address the issue, but the attitude towards foreign assistance in the general public has changed in recent years from being perceived as highly unpopular to having unprecedented support. It is important for Congress to move forward quickly in order to take advantage of the public and administration's support. Ohlbaum also stated that she believes foreign aid is no longer a partisan issue as it was in the past. The real challenge will be finding a balance between Congress' demand for accountability and oversight, and the executive branch desire for flexibility in execution. In light of the support for this much needed reform, Chairman Berman has introduced H.R. 2139 which would create a national strategy for global development. In addition, Chairman Berman has begun the process in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to bring a broader reform bill to the House later in the year.

The panel and Sewell laid out criteria by which to evaluate the foreign aid reform. The first and most important in their opinion was laying out a framework for a national development strategy which defines the goals and objectives of the United States.. This development strategy should address "the big picture" and focus on long-term initiatives. As Offenheiser stated, the U.S. needs a policy with patience. Offenheiser also stressed the need to change the way we define "success" by setting new benchmarks which redefine our criteria for accountability. Another essential element of the reform will be developing effective partnerships. NGOs are now major players in the field of development, so the U.S. should partner with these organizations and tap into their knowledge and skills. The numerous U.S. governmental agencies engaged in development should be working together as well, in order to achieve the defined objectives. Similarly, a critical aspect of the new development strategy should be building partnerships with the recipient countries.

Another criteria addressed by the panel was the need for the reform to reflect what we have learned over the last five decades of promoting development. As Offenheiser put it, we must "look backward to learn and forward to act." Sewell stated that, we must remember that outsiders do not develop a country and there is no "one size fits all" approach to development. Part of the development objectives should be building leadership within the recipient countries in order to transfer capacity and control. Our success should be defined by our exit; developing leaders and providing them with tools to succeed will allow them to continue development after aid has ended. We cannot assume that our engagement and financial aid is inevitable and interminable.

One person asked how this reform will incorporate the issue of climate change, which is not only a major challenge for our generation but also poses a major health threat to developing nations. In response, Offenheiser noted that we need to determine our main foreign assistance problems and address these first. It is essential to pass the reform now in this unique window of opportunity and including the issue of climate change is likely to slow down the process. Only after the essential reforms are made can we work on separate issues such as climate change.

Audience members also asked the panel questions regarding the obstacles to creating a balance between congressional oversight and flexibility in execution, and how they feel the executive-legislative relationship is different from in the past. Ohlbaum responded that it is essential for the administration and Congress to reach a "grand bargain." Congress and the administration need to determine what they are willing to give up. A grand bargain has always been crucial to creating a suitable compromise between Congress and the administration, but what makes this time different from past attempts at reform is that now both are committed to the process and Congress is moving quickly to create a proposal that works for both.

Drafted by Julia Smearman and edited by David Klaus.