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A moment for foreign aid reform

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Sometimes in Washington, unanticipated events provide the best opportunities for progress. We are at such a point in the debate around international development funding, and we believe that by acting on three areas of general agreement on reform, the United States can see significant improvements in the effectiveness of our efforts, greater accountability and value for the taxpayer, and a safer and more prosperous United States and world.

When the Trump administration first presented its “skinny budget” blueprint for fiscal 2018 earlier this year, the proposed cuts to global health and development were viewed by the development community as more than just a cost-saving exercise, but rather an undercutting of institutional capacity and a retreat from the longstanding and bipartisan commitment to U.S. leadership in a rapidly changing world. The development community’s response was no fewer than five major reorganization and reform proposals — really, counter-proposals to the administration — laying out a range of major changes that would be better for development.

{mosads}This combination of threat and response has brought us to an unexpected moment: the administration, the development community, and Congress more or less agree that significant reforms are needed. We recognize that the particulars are very important, and the parties are far apart, but this convergence is the best opportunity for reform we have had in decades. Such reforms have been the basis of the work of the Consensus for Development Reform for more than seven years. As the organization’s co-chairmen, we believe this agreement represents a truly historic opportunity we must seize. Among the varied recommendations, three critical agenda items deserve special attention and cooperation.


The first is the embrace of economic growth and access to economic opportunity as an engine for sustainable development. In recent years, we have seen a welcome recognition that public sector funding is neither able to drive economic growth on the scale needed nor is it politically sustainable. For the United States, global economic growth helps fuel our own prosperity as well in a mutually beneficial relationship. Also, harnessing that economic potential provides a robust alternative to China’s aggressive, mercantilist strategy in Africa and elsewhere. We are very encouraged by the growing interest on Capitol Hill, among the development community, and in the administration in pursuing a much more robust capacity for such development finance, including bipartisan legislation.

The second foundation for reform is to ensure a smooth and effective transition from large, donor-funded development programs to true country ownership. Achieving self-sustaining economies with partner governments that provide health, education and economic opportunity for their citizens must come through careful, deliberate and steady progress. Arbitrary cut-offs would backfire and squander past investments and relationships in ways that actually hurt the interests of the United States. Such deliberate transition to country ownership is already a priority in many parts of our development programs, with highly successful models of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the President’s Malaria Initiative, and among our multilateral tools, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. These country ownership models can be replaced in many other areas with similar success.

The third foundation is a new management model to ensure effective implementation and accountability across the many parts of government. The administration and Congress must work very closely to ensure that the benefits of the “whole of government” are preserved while the deficiencies in accountability and effectiveness are corrected. Designating USAID Administrator Mark Green as the director of foreign assistance, with full “dual hat” authority to drive a government-wide development strategy and to hold all of government accountable for results, is superior to a divisive and time-consuming forced marriage between the State Department and USAID or diminishing USAID’s established leadership roles. This cross-agency model of authority, responsibility and accountability is not an experiment, having been proven to be very effective in the military’s “joint” mission structure across the service branches. The model has already been applied to development as well, where it has been a formula for the success of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and Malaria Initiative.

What we have at hand is an unexpected and rare opportunity for cooperation that can provide real reforms in our development assistance. Congress and the administration should seize the opportunity to advance reforms put forward by the development community itself. Such reforms will make our work more effective for those we seek to help, a better tool to advance our national interests, and a greater value for the taxpayer. Strengthening our leadership in development, and not leaving a vacuum for others to fill, is essential to putting America first.

Robert Mosbacher Jr. is chairman of Mosbacher Energy Company. He was the ninth president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

Mark Dybul, M.D., is co-director of the Center for Global Health and Quality and professor at Georgetown University Medical Center.

They are co-chairmen of Consensus for Development Reform.

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