5 things the Trump team needs to know about foreign aid

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As President-elect Donald Trump’s transition teams arrive at the Department of State and other foreign policy agencies, they are no doubt being inundated with briefing papers and policy recommendations.

Here’s a quick list of what they need to know about foreign aid.

1. If you don’t want to send in the troops, you need development.

U.S. national security is weakened when, across the globe, communicable diseases spread out of control, conflicts and disasters cause mass displacement and refugee flows, vital natural resources are destroyed, young people lack access to education and jobs, and hunger and malnutrition go unaddressed.

{mosads}It becomes harder for the United States to build partnerships and alliances, expand markets for goods and services, and protect the health and safety of the American people.

These problems will not be kept at bay by a strong military, nor will they be solved by using force, threats, coercion or intimidation.

Development aid, supported by skillful diplomacy, is the cheapest and best tool at the president’s disposal.

2. The private sector is a partner, not a substitute.

Development goals could not be reached without the help of private giving from U.S. nongovernmental organizations, foundations and corporations, which nearly equals U.S. official development assistance.

However, poor data and lack of transparency for these private resources limits the ability to know how and where they are spent.

And because each philanthropic institution has the right to set its own strategies and objectives for giving, there is no way to ensure those resource flows are consistent with U.S. policy goals or coordinated with other funding streams.

3. Transactional aid doesn’t work.

Because aid is intended to serve U.S. national interests, there is a temptation to barter it for immediate political and diplomatic gain, such as votes in the United Nations, military and intelligence cooperation, or specific policy and governance changes.

But this type of short-term tradeoff frequently leads to corruption, waste and abuse, giving aid a bad name. Decisions made this way lack domestic buy-in from the partner country, so any improvements tend to be short-lived.

Aid is most effective when it is used to support those who are already committed to making constructive change for their own reasons, and when it is provided in amounts that can be programmed responsibly and disbursed over a realistic timeframe.

4. This is not your father’s USAID.

After repeated political attacks, attempts at merger, and reductions in force during the 1990s, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) became demoralized, disempowered and disrespected. It lost some of its most seasoned professionals and handed over many of its core tasks to for-profit contractors.

The creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, both outside USAID’s ambit and control, represented a vote of no confidence in USAID.

But under the leadership of Raj Shah and with the support of both parties in Congress, USAID thoroughly transformed itself.

What was once the “whipping boy” of the foreign policy establishment is now a front-runner in carrying out transparent, accountable, results-driven aid.

USAID’s Global Development Lab tests out innovative technologies and approaches that build public-private partnerships, create incentives for greater efficiency and reward proven success. The new Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning has introduced strategic and analytic rigor into country plans and program design, and used evaluation findings to inform budgets.

The agency has also ramped up its cooperation with the Department of Defense, facilitating pre-deployment trainings for U.S. troops and engaging in joint operations and planning. U.S. military leaders are now among the strongest advocates for a robust USAID.

5. Congress is constructively engaged.

Unlike in years past, when the administration had to battle Congress on foreign aid, since 2013, Republicans and Democrats in both houses have worked together in support of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, clean water and sanitation, global agriculture and food security, reliable power access, and foreign aid transparency and accountability.

The new president will have enough fights with Congress without picking one on development.

Ultimately, yes, there is still unfinished business on foreign aid reform generally, and USAID reform specifically. But instead of swinging a wrecking ball, President-elect Trump’s foreign policy team ought to build on the structures that are solidly serving U.S. national interests.

Diana Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network Executive Committee, and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Project on Prosperity and Development.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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