Stretching the shrinking foreign aid dollar

Given the competing factors of America’s growing international interests and shrinking resources to engage on the global arena, the federal government must take a more critical look at how best to deliver accountable, transparent, and sustainable development aid to countries in need and ask itself how best to support our national security, economic, and humanitarian goals. That assessment cannot be driven by ideology. Success will require business-like assessment of the capabilities and results of those who can deliver.

As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and ranking member of the House Oversight subcommittee responsible for federal procurement, I have a particular interest in ensuring the federal government is getting the best value for these investments in foreign aid. My experience has shown me that there are some tasks better suited for our non-profit partners, like those involving human capital, while others, like capital infrastructure, are better suited to our private sector partners.

Ongoing efforts at the Department of State and USAID to modernize the development enterprise with business-like principles to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness should be applauded.  Smart development policy should be based on leveraging the best that America has to offer, regardless of whether it comes from non-profits, large companies, small companies, universities, think tanks, or the government. So when USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said in a January speech that “[t]his agency is no longer satisfied with writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development,” some could interpret that to mean one delivery model is inherently better than another or that there is wasteful spending in foreign aid.  In fact, just one-third of USAID dollars are disbursed through contract. The other two-thirds are distributed through competitive grants and cooperative agreements.

Those leading this initiative must guard against allowing the pendulum to swing too far in favor of one model, which as we’ve witnessed in other federal agencies can lead to inefficiencies and higher costs. Let’s base these decisions on facts, not anecdotes. Let’s have an evidence-based assessment of who can deliver the best results at the best price and not some ideological predisposition to what works best.

Non-profits and for-profits both have roles to play in this important discussion. I know; I have worked for both. In this time of budget constraints and skepticism over federal spending, and foreign aid in particular, opening the door to competition will spur innovation and positive results, which are good not only for the U.S. and its partners, but also those countries that rely on America for foreign assistance.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) is the ranking member of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.