Back to the future

As the world has changed over the last five decades, the Foreign Assistance Act has been amended in an effort to catch up.  But these changes haven’t always been consistent or logical or even timely.  

As we mark the Act’s 50th anniversary, it has become a collection of anachronisms that send U.S. diplomats and development professionals on frequent trips down memory lane. 

Fortunately, aid workers have soldiered through the legislative mess.  Foreign aid has reduced the number of children who die before their fifth birthday by four million since 1990, put 33 million more children in the classroom, and increased ten-fold the number of people receiving HIV/AIDS medication – statistics that are lost on those in Congress that seek to cut programs for the global poor.

All this might seem like legislative nitpicking; after all, policymakers know there’s no more Soviet Union, right?  And it’s not like the legislation isn’t packed with waivers; the words “Notwithstanding any other provision of law” appear in the Foreign Assistance Act 275 times. It’s fair to ask whether these provisions actually constrain how U.S. bureaucrats behave.
But that’s precisely the point; the law isn’t just supposed to be a restraint on how bureaucrats operate; it is supposed to give them clear direction on what Congress expects from them, and what Congress will be holding them accountable for in oversight hearings.  But because the law is so outdated, full of holes with competing or outdated directives, it’s a wonder that anyone—bureaucrats, lawmakers, or the American public—knows what we’re even trying to accomplish with our foreign assistance programs—or what success is supposed to look like.
The result is a complete breakdown in strategy and oversight.  Step 1: Executive Branch agencies plan their strategies without consulting Congress. Step 2: Congress tries to assert its will by packing appropriations bills with directives, riders, earmarks, and reporting requirements.  Step 3: USAID professionals in the field struggle to craft strategies with more than 100% of their budgets earmarked.  Step 4: Executive Branch officials try to explain to Congress why the agency didn’t clearly execute legislators’ intent.  Step 5: Repeat next fiscal year.

The ideal solution would be to redraft the Foreign Assistance Act for our day and age.  Thankfully, this is exactly the challenge that U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Ca.) has taken on.

Tomorrow at the American Enterprise Institute, Rep. Berman will unveil his effort to rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  His stated intent is to remove the old, confusing language and provide legislation that can clearly and effectively guide implementation of U.S. foreign assistance.  

Furthermore, this effort can improve oversight of programs abroad—the more legislators that understand what the law says, the more likely they will be able to hold the bureaucracy to account.  But ultimately, the biggest advantage of a rewrite is the opportunity it brings for a renewed consensus about what U.S. Foreign Assistance programs should be aiming to achieve.

This new “grand bargain” regarding U.S. foreign policy is the real prize of a Foreign Assistance Act rewrite.  Congress would do well to embrace Rep. Berman’s effort—to take his draft as the basis of a comprehensive bipartisan rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act, and thus take this old legislative time machine into the 21st century.
Gregory Adams is Director of Aid Effectiveness at Oxfam America.


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