The unfinished business of foreign aid reform

In 2008 a group of foreign policy luminaries issued a proposal to promote a “fresh, smart approach to U.S. foreign policy and engagement in the world.”  As the name of their new coalition implied, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) sought to reform a foreign aid system that was badly outdated and poorly equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century.  MFAN offered a set of core principles and priority actions for making foreign assistance more effective, more efficient, and better at serving our national interests.  Their ideas inspired each of us to engage in foreign aid reform from our individual leadership positions within and outside of Congress.

Over the intervening six years, notable progress has been made.  Both the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review sought to elevate the role of global development in our foreign policy, and to adopt a more evidence-based and results-oriented approach to aid.

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For the first time ever, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched high-quality, scientifically rigorous evaluations of their work, geared toward identifying lessons that could be applied to future programming.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed the United States to participation in the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and in 2013 the MCC was ranked by Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index as the most transparent donor organization in the world.  USAID refocused its work by driving game-changing innovations, using science and technology to solve age-old challenges, creating new and improved partnerships, and rebuilding its own human capital in order to demonstrate real results.  And while these changes have not yet been codified, the hard work has been done to prepare comprehensive reform legislation that transforms the unsustainable donor-recipient relationship into one of equal partners working toward mutually agreed upon and beneficial goals.

In light of this progress, and recognizing the many challenges that still remain, this year MFAN  has reconstituted itself and is  launching “The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond” – its vision of the future of foreign aid, and its recommendations for the next steps to get there.  As Honorary Co-Chairs of MFAN, we support its sharpened focus on two interrelated areas where progress will have the greatest impact: accountability and ownership.

While these two concepts may not be well-understood outside a small circle of development experts, MFAN’s task will be to broaden awareness of their inextricable links to effective development and to each other.  “Accountability” through transparency, evaluation and learning is, in effect, a feedback loop that strengthens public engagement in order to improve program results.  By revealing exactly how funds are being spent, aid transparency enables stakeholders to monitor implementation and provide real-time information that can be used to avoid corruption and to better reach those in need.  Conducting independent evaluations that not only measure simple outputs (such as number of teachers trained or wells drilled) but actual impacts (such as improved reading skills or reduced disease burden) will help us to determine which programs bring the greatest bang for the buck, and how.  The lessons that are learned through greater transparency and rigorous evaluations must then be fed back into the system to guide spending decisions and improve program design.

“Ownership” is both a result of accountability and a pre-requisite for it.  Our local partners will not feel responsible for making programs work if they are not part of the decision-making process, and they cannot be part of the decision-making process without detailed information about our aid budgets, plans and activities.  Too often in the past, aid decisions were made without considering the views and capabilities of local partners and beneficiaries, and without engaging them in program implementation.  Yet if there is one thing that we have learned from experience, it is that doing for is not nearly as helpful as doing with.  Ultimately, our goal is for developing countries to become self-reliant, with governments that answer to the people and vibrant economies that expand opportunities and hope for all – especially women and others who have been marginalized and excluded.  To succeed in this effort we must heed local priorities, use local systems, and leverage local resources.

Applying the principles of accountability and country ownership to our aid programs will help poor countries to take responsibility for their own development, and will help citizens of our own country to feel confident that their taxpayer dollars are being well spent.  MFAN’s new agenda sets out a list of criteria and benchmarks for judging how well U.S. foreign assistance conforms to these principles, and its member organizations will continue to work both at home and abroad to put these principles into practice. We look forward to working together on this new way forward.

Lugar served as senator from Indiana from 1977 to 2013, and was twice chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and twice chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He currently runs TheLugarCenter.org.  Berman represented congressional districts in California's San Fernando Valley from 1983 to 2013 and served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is currently a senior adviser at Covington & Burling. Kolbe represented Arizona congressional districts from 1985 to 2007, and is a senior Transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and senior adviser at McLarty Associates.  The three serve as honorary co-chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).