Trump Should Fix Foreign Aid, But Not at the Expense of U.S. Interests

The country’s international goals, not arbitrary budget decisions, should motivate its development strategy.

Since World War II, the United States has been the unquestioned global leader in foreign assistance. This position has won us friends and allies abroad and helped support American security and prosperity at home. Today, the world is vastly different from the way it was in 1945 (or even 1989), and it’s time to rethink our approach to foreign assistance. The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to reimagine and restructure U.S. foreign assistance to meet the demands of the 21st century.

President Donald Trump released a major executive order on March 13, 2017 asking all federal departments and agencies to submit reorganization plans targeting “efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.” The president’s 2018 budget request also underscores the administration’s desire to find new efficiencies in U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance operations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the process of reviewing U.S. development and diplomacy programs, and will have to make some hard decisions in the coming months.

So far, the administration is asking the right questions. But we can’t afford to ignore development as a critical part of the national security picture, alongside defense and diplomacy. There has been enormous social and economic progress around the world in recent decades, but there are looming threats that will require an American foreign assistance response. Whether it comes to mitigating the threat of global pandemics, combatting violent extremism, enabling the economic empowerment of women, addressing forced migration, fighting against gangs and drugs, or supporting rule of law around the world, foreign assistance will be an important part of the solution.

We should, however, push for a sharper and more focused foreign assistance program that helps keep Americans safe, establishes new markets and economic relationships for American companies, and solidifies American moral leadership around the world. Part of this shift should be about empowering and partnering with non-public sector actors, including the for-profit private sector, which is by far the largest source of job and wealth creation in the world. There are growing opportunities for win-win, private sector-led development. There are also ways to more fully leverage the totality of U.S. national assets, including through strategic partnerships with American civil society, philanthropy, and other nongovernmental organizations. We should pursue these opportunities.

The administration has sparked a process that should be seen as an opportunity to improve U.S. foreign assistance. Our foreign assistance spending is an enlightened investment in American security and prosperity, and we should be seeking to maximize our return on every dollar we spend.

To help generate concrete ideas, the Center for Strategic and International Studies brought together a bipartisan Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing Foreign Assistance, co-chaired by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-I.N.). The task force is composed of senior foreign policy and foreign assistance professionals drawn from four consecutive presidential administrations. The group includes representatives from the National Security Council, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The task force met for three extended sessions in the late spring and early summer to build a consensus set of proposals for strengthening U.S. foreign assistance and soft power. There were a few points of agreement, which the task force identified almost immediately. First, nobody supported the status quo. Our foreign assistance can clearly be improved with the right ideas and political resolve. Second, nobody thought that it was wise to merge USAID into the State Department. Finally, while there are clearly areas for budget savings, nobody supported the cuts at the scale proposed in the president’s “skinny budget.”

In a report released Monday, the task force, which I convened, endorsed three broad recommendations that would ensure U.S. security, prosperity, and leadership by creating a more efficient and future oriented foreign aid program:

  1. Maintain USAID as an independent agency overseeing federal foreign assistance efforts, develop a clearly articulated development strategy, and strengthen the USAID administrator by naming him or her the “coordinator of foreign assistance.”
  2. Address duplication of effort and generate budget savings while maintaining functional coherence when appropriate.
  3. Modernize the personnel system, make the procurement system more efficient, and streamline reporting.

The world has changed since our last major rethink of foreign assistance, more than 50 years ago, and we very overdue for an update. To meet the new challenges and realities of our world we must realign our systems, people, and resources. At the same time, our national interests — not arbitrary budget decisions — should drive the creation of a U.S. development strategy and the organization or our soft power tools.

There is a broad consensus of development, diplomacy, and defense experts who support a strengthened approach to foreign assistance. The administration should work with Congress to craft a more durable, bipartisan, foreign assistance agenda.

article published in on July 24, 2017.

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