A Foreign Assistance Manifesto for the Next President

Whoever wins in 2016, America’s soft power strategy is in need of an update.

Thankfully, U.S. foreign assistance policy has not been part of the foreign policy and national security debate in this presidential campaign season. U.S. foreign assistance is for the vast majority of voters not a vote moving issue in primaries or even in the general election in November. In past cycles, when development has gotten any attention it has been around ending assistance, or very focused debate on a small subset of countries. However, international development and U.S. assistance policy do matter to a broad series of critical questions that demonstrate a candidate meets the commander-in-chief test. A different kind of discussion about development is warranted, and the U.S. foreign assistance budget of around $30 billion a year (less than 1 percent of the federal budget) should be thought of as an important instrument of U.S. global leadership.

There are still some inside and outside the Republican Party who believe all assistance is useless — money down a rat hole or gone to Swiss Bank Accounts. Historically, Republican presidents including Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 have used assistance to expand political freedom and economic freedom in the world. These presidents worked closely with the U.S. Congress to make significant change whether it was creating the National Endowment for Democracy under President Reagan, supporting the emergence of a Europe Whole and Free under Bush 41, or the major contributions of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President’s Malaria Initiative, and PEPFAR to combat HIV/AIDS. All of these accomplishments were done in partnership with the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has produced nothing new in partnership with the Congress.

At the end of the day, the nominee of the Republican Party generally produces a vision like Gov. Mitt Romney’s.

Here are several critical questions to the next president that have been on the minds of voters — especially Republican voters — in the last 24 months:

  • What is your strategy to confront and defeat the Islamic State and other forms of violent extremism?
  • How will you keep us safe from and act to prevent or mitigate the next pandemic outbreak like the Ebola outbreak in the fall of 2014?
  • How can the United States prevent another 70,000 children from surging towards the United States from Central America as they flee gang and drug related violence?
  • How will the United States support dissidents in Cuba and Iran (preferably without U.S. military engagement) and how will we work to see the end of those regimes (preferably through peaceful means)?
  • How should the United States respond to the strategic competition of China and its soft power such as the recent Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank?
  • How will the United States ensure that Ukraine remains strong and independent — not just militarily but economically — and work to bring about its energy independence?
  • How will the United States confront the scourge of human slavery and human trafficking?
  • How will the United States protect religious minorities including and especially Christians in the Middle East?

All of the answers to these questions rely in whole or in part on how the United States might use assistance in partnership with others, to support private enterprise, and through the work of multilateral institutions.

If Republicans win the White House in 2016, it will have been eight years since the last Republican president. Much has changed in the world and the GOP is going to have to change with it.

Many developing countries, even with the current turbulence in the emerging markets, have made tremendous strides in the last 30 years. With communism as an absolute alternative to capitalism gone (thank you United States and allies) there has been a growing acceptance since the 1980s of free market capitalism and democratic governance as the model to strive for. Even China accepts some version of this economic model, albeit with “Chinese characteristics.” This has led to increasing participation in the rule based order set up by the United States at the end of World War II, and the world is seeing significant global progress as a result.

With all this progress, the United States should think differently about its assistance and what it can influence.

First, the United States is going to have to form a more realistic assessment about what its assistance can accomplish, and on what timeline. The impact of cutting off U.S. assistance on many economies or linking U.S. friendly votes in the U.N. General Assembly to U.S. assistance policy is going to get more and more unrealistic as we look at the assistance envelope we give these countries compared to their GNP.

Second, related to this is that many countries have the ability to “pay” for their own progress through the increased private sector activity in their societies, broadly better economic policies, marginally better governance, and increased global trade increasingly between what are known as “south south” (among developing country) economies. More effective “domestic resource mobilization,” or government revenues collected from taxes and fees, means that governments have far more money at their disposal to pay for things like health, education, and water management. In 2012, developing and emerging economies mobilized nearly $8 trillion in domestic revenues. That does not mean that the United States does not have a role in all of these important issues but it means that we will have a different role to play as an increasing number of countries have the capacity, money, and will to pay for their own public goods.

Third, there are a series of on-going changes in the world that require a significant rethink as to what the United States can contribute with its limited assistance. Those changes include: the size and role of China, massive urbanization with more than half the world now living in cities and more to come, democratization of cellular and internet technologies all over the world, the growing global middle class, the increased global risk of pandemics, on-going regional security challenges, the on-going need for energy and infrastructure, the challenge of feeding a 9 billion person planet, a massive youth bulge combined with complex demographic dynamics including the onset of global aging in many developing countries.

Given these shifting dynamics, the United States should look at its assistance through five strategic lenses:

  • Support for economic growth and good governance (with a strong preference for democratic governance).
  • Responding to China as a strategic competitor and a revanchist Russia.
  • Confronting radical extremism.
  • Managing other trans-national threats including global pandemics such as Ebola as well as human trafficking and illicit drugs.
  • Managing and mitigating failed and failing states.

The next Republican president-elect, should conduct a top to bottom review of every dollar we are spending on foreign assistance both bilaterally and multilaterally in the context of the five lenses above. That review should be conducted between the election and inauguration. The United States needs to be prepared to end some programs, increase others, work with closely with allies, national and increasingly “sub-national” (read cities and states) partners governments and the private sector. It should increasingly link its assistance to trade, support democracy and good governance, and enable private sector activity.

There will also be the issue of what to do about the World Bank Presidency. Jim Yong Kim’s five-year term ends July 1, 2017. Should the president-elect choose to re-appoint President Kim, the decision will have to be made no later than the end of January 2017 with a month to six weeks for consultations with the G7. If for some reason, the president-elect wants to make a change, a short list of candidates to be interviewed by the president or president-elect will have to be vetted during the transition and a decision made by the end of January 2017. There have been issues at the Bank, including a recent internal survey that demonstrates serious concern from World Bank staffers, which deserve looking into before making a decision either way.

The United States’ assistance programming matters, but if we are not prepared to change with the times we run the risk of spending money on things that are important to us but not relevant to our partners on the ground. Developing countries welcome our engagement but increasingly on their terms. With the rise of China, and its deeply connected trade and development strategies, if we do not offer to help countries in ways that align with their aspirations they now have the option of turning to China.

article published in foreignpolicy.com on August 25, 2015.

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