In a Congress best known for gridlock, inaction and partisanship, something unusual happened at the end of last year that you might have missed hearing about.  The House of Representatives came together and voted unanimously to pass a bill to make U.S. foreign assistance more transparent and accountable so that foreign assistance can work better. It was a remarkable display of bipartisanship in a Congress not known for working together.  Even more remarkable, the same spirit of bipartisanship surfaced again in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and can happen in the full Senate before the end of the year.

Serving for more than 20 years in the House of Representatives and witnessing significant global events such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping through South Africa and the economic rise of Brazil and India, I became convinced that the U.S. has played – and must continue to play – a leading role in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty, eliminate disease, unlock opportunity, and increase economic growth around the world. I also became convinced that if the United States is to play this leadership role, we must maintain an unwavering focus on spending foreign assistance dollars effectively and efficiently for two primary reasons.  It is essential if we are to achieve sustainable development outcomes and it is necessary to maintain taxpayer support for foreign assistance.  Legislation that would make U.S. aid more transparent and accountable, like what the House passed last year, is the kind of reform required to ensure we continue our leadership role in good development policy and practice.  

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Chairing the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding our international development work taught me that applying a few, commonsense principles can help ensure assistance dollars are well-spent to help those in need and to spur growth around the world. These principles, detailed below, are even more relevant today.

First, we need to be working across the aisle, across the House-Senate divide, and down Pennsylvania Avenue.  The principle of foreign assistance has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support in both the legislative and executive branches. Surely, making certain it is wisely and effectively should be no different. Some of the most effective examples of reform over the past two decades, such as the creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Power Africa, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), have been achieved because of bipartisan cooperation among Presidents, Senators, and Representatives. Having been closely associated with the creation of the MCC in 2004, I saw firsthand exactly why this kind of cooperation is necessary if legislation is to succeed. More than a decade later, the MCC, a development agency dedicated to inclusive economic growth with principles of accountability and local ownership at its core, continues to be a strong model for effective and sustainable development.

Second, U.S. assistance is most effective when partner countries are actively involved and take the lead in designing assistance programs. The evidence on this is clear – development gains are more likely to last when local stakeholders determine their own development priorities, drive implementation of programs, and contribute significant resources to ensure goals are met. Each of the development strategies just mentioned are rooted in this principle of local ownership, and local ownership is a vital part of their ongoing success.

Third, the public here in the U.S. and in partner countries are demanding more accountability—and the U.S. should be leading the way to respond. While serving in the House, I always kept in mind that foreign assistance dollars are entrusted by the American people to the Congress and the executive branch. It is our duty to ensure these dollars are spent wisely to secure development outcomes that last. It is equally essential that U.S. foreign assistance is accountable to local populations. It must strengthen – not undermine – the accountability of local governments and the ability of local people to hold their governments accountable.

Looking ahead, leaders would do well to remember that the principles of transparency, accountability, and local ownership must be part of our development DNA and not just for USAID, but across all 22 U.S. agencies that deliver foreign assistance. As part of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a coalition dedicated to this urgent vision since its founding in 2008, it is encouraging to see the work to make our assistance programs more effective is paying off.  There may be only nine months before a new Administration and Congress are sworn in, but that is time enough for this Administration and Congress to heed the lessons we have learned and work together to accelerate progress on efforts to make foreign aid more transparent, accountable, and sustainable.

That’s a winner for everyone.

The Honorable Jim Kolbe, Former Congressman from Arizona, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and Honorary Co-Chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network