A cheat sheet for Congress: How to get the most out of foreign aid

Think of these recommendations as a “cheat sheet” for budget hawks looking to get the most out of our development dollars.

Want to cut back on government waste? Improve the delivery of food assistance by eliminating restrictions on buying local or regional food, repealing inefficient cargo preferences that make transporting food aid prohibitively expensive and scale back on food aid monetization.

Want to hold governments more accountable? Publish clear and easy to read information about all our foreign assistance online for U.S. taxpayers and people in developing countries to see.

Want to eliminate earmarks? Get rid of those earmarks that are simply not consistent with country strategic plans, and make it hard for foreign assistance to be nimble in the field.

Want to eventually put the U.S. out of the aid business? Make sure U.S. foreign assistance is driven by demand and not by Washington fiat, and goes to local development priorities.

Want to make sure poor people don’t lose out in U.S. policies beyond aid? Mandate a U.S. global development strategy that holds all government agencies accountable and is codified into law.

Want to make sure reforms to the bureaucracy take root? Provide USAID with a modest working capital fund to implement reforms, and continue the Development Leadership Initiative started under former President George W. Bush, which ensures that staff expertise will be guided by demand.

These are just a few clear and concrete steps for making sure that U.S. foreign assistance continues to boost the U.S. economy and get the most bang for the buck in a tough budget year. As policymakers start to have the tough conversations about FY12, policymakers would do well to have MFAN’s “cheat sheet” nearby to help them make those choices. Because we owe it to U.S. taxpayers to maximize the efficiency of our aid, the U.S. must commit to providing better information, capacity and control to responsible governments and active citizens.

Before us is an opportunity to elevate development as a foreign policy tool that can help millions of struggling families uplift themselves from the destitute of poverty. Getting behind U.S. policy reforms and investing in innovative on-the-ground approaches that strengthen country-led development agendas is good not only for the U.S. budget and maximizing our global aid dollars but is good for poor people in softening the impact of the FY11 budget cuts.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America.