Overhaul of US foreign aid is overdue

At a time when competing government priorities face the chopping block, advocates of effective foreign aid have a responsibility to make the case that aid directly serves our country’s long-term national-security and economic interests, and in a cost-effective way.

A key goal of foreign aid is to make the right investments that reinforce America’s priorities. Unfortunately, the current foreign aid process and the underlying statute are encrusted with legislative barnacles built up over half a century that are messy, conflicting and outdated, and that actually hinder our ability to deliver foreign aid effectively and efficiently.

It is time for a complete overhaul. The 21st century requires a foreign aid program that recognizes today’s priorities and streamlines the process in the post-Cold War era. For instance, do we still need language in current law, passed in 1961, that requires the president to assure Congress that foreign aid recipients are not “controlled by the international Communist conspiracy”?

The many task forces and policy committees that have examined U.S. foreign aid have cited the myriad goals, objectives and priorities contained in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The Center for Global Development, for example, identified more than 33 major objectives, 75 priorities and 247 directives relating to foreign aid in the act. And all of this for a miniscule piece of the federal budget. Little wonder, then, that we lack any central focus to our effort and even less of an ability to measure its effectiveness.

The Global Partnerships Act of 2012 (H.R. 6644) replaces this byzantine labyrinth of priorities by identifying eight concise goals for development assistance. The legislation simplifies the bureaucracy administering foreign aid by restoring the U.S. Agency for International Development’s policy and budget functions and clarifies the roles and relationships of key officials involved in its delivery.

In addition, the Global Partnerships Act tackles problems like the lack of transparency, accountability and oversight in the system. It requires the maintenance of an online database of information, easily accessible by the public, with complete information about all forms of U.S. foreign assistance, including an unclassified database on security assistance. This online database would provide detailed information on overhead and administrative costs for overseas projects, ensuring that U.S. taxpayers get the most out of their investment.

Opponents of foreign aid say that aid programs amount to little more than handouts. But the purpose of foreign assistance, as President Obama has insisted, must be to create the conditions where it’s no longer needed. To do this, our programs should aim to build indigenous capacity in various sectors, with the ultimate goals of country ownership and self-reliance. The Global Partnerships Act emphasizes the importance of country ownership by transforming the donor-recipient relationship to one of partners working toward mutually agreed-upon and beneficial goals.

Many believe that foreign assistance is a luxury we can no longer afford in an era of tight budgets and fiscal challenges. They perpetuate the misconception that foreign aid encompasses a massive portion of the federal budget. In reality, this assistance amounts to only about 1 percent of federal spending.

Moreover, foreign aid is a critical component of our national-security strategy, which includes three key pillars: defense, diplomacy and development. National-security experts and military leaders frequently extol the importance of foreign aid, recognizing, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once said, that “economic development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.”

It is critical that the United States modernize its foreign aid policies and maintain its foreign aid investments. It is also critical that we establish metrics to gauge the efficacy of those investments. There are other countries ready and willing to fill the vacuum that we will leave behind.

Foreign assistance is a critical tool in the diplomatic toolkit. A great power must have the tools to act—beyond simply intervening militarily. A streamlined, effective foreign aid template can enhance U.S. values and influence in a dangerous world and help avoid the enormous costs in blood and treasure that inevitably result from military intervention.

While admittedly some of our foreign aid investments have been ineffectively deployed in the field over the years, it is beyond dispute that foreign assistance has dramatically lowered infant mortality rates, raised hundreds of millions of people from poverty, extended longevity, created employment and fostered democratic institutions in every corner of the world. Its return is well worth the investment.

Berman is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Connolly represents the 11th district of Virginia and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.