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Modernize Our Foreign Aid System

There is an urgent need to reform the structure, operations, and staffing of our foreign aid system, and an equally important need to coordinate a sweeping reform process with the Congress.

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There is an urgent need to reform the structure, operations, and staffing of our foreign aid system, and an equally important need to coordinate a sweeping reform process with the Congress. Reform will likely require new legislation to replace the almost 50-year old Foreign Assistance Act, as well as an overhaul of critical internal procedures ranging from evaluation to procurement.

A growing number of development experts, NGOs, corporate leaders, and foreign policy specialists are lending support to the creation of an independent, cabinet-level development agency, similar to Britain’s Department for International Development. The rationale is that because development is a field distinct from either defense or diplomacy, it warrants its own department and leadership, and a seat at the foreign policymaking table.

There is also a need, advocates argue, to bring our various foreign aid agencies under one roof. As well, there is growing recognition of the need to insulate the development portion of our foreign aid budget from the pressure of short-term security imperatives, and instead focus on long-term development objectives across the span of successive administrations.

The proposal is that military aid, including “train and equip” programs for foreign militaries, peacekeeping funds, and economic security funds, or ESF, would remain under the jurisdiction of the Departments of Defense and State. Humanitarian and development aid—including PEPFAR and the MCA—would be centralized under a new, professionally staffed department, insulated from short-term imperatives and focused on long-term goals.

The next president, however, cannot create a new department without extensive internal deliberation or consultation with Congress. Fortunately, leading members of Congress have already taken on the cause of modernizing our foreign aid system.

The next president should immediately engage with this ongoing congressional process and appoint, during the transition, a high-level White House official to consult within and outside of government and develop options for rationalizing and modernizing our foreign aid system during his first term. Because traditional institutional imperatives may cause a new Secretary of State to oppose an independent cabinet-level agency, the president should also secure the support of the new secretary to consider the full range of options.

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