Any reorganization of U.S. foreign aid should focus on “fixing the plumbing” of international development programs rather than sharply cutting back government funding overall, according to a bipartisan report released this week.
A task force organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies recommended preserving the U.S. Agency for International Development as an independent agency coordinating all U.S. foreign assistance, and not folding the agency into the State Department as some critics of current aid efforts have proposed.
The future of U.S. foreign aid efforts has been squarely in the spotlight since Donald Trump announced his “America first” policy on the campaign trail in April 2016.
The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget request, the administration’s first blueprint submitted to Congress, called for State Department and foreign aid spending to be cut by 32 percent, or roughly $19 billion. Money for international peacekeeping, global health programs, educational and cultural exchanges, and sanitation, water and agricultural projects were reduced.
“It is not in the national interest to remove the development leg from the U.S. national security stool,” said the CSIS report. “Our friends seek our continued leadership, our adversaries fear it and Americans should demand it.”
With even Republicans on Capitol Hill vowing to restore at least some of the funding, Mr. Trump issued an executive order that requires all federal departments to submit plans to improve their “efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.”
The CSIS task force acknowledged that U.S. programs had several deficiencies but warned against shutting down the aid bureaucracy entirely.
State Department Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month that there was no predetermination to fold USAID into the State Department in any reorganization under Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.
U.S. development assistance overseas is in our national interest even if the benefits are not always evident in the short term, Sen. Todd Young said at a CSIS event Monday. The Indiana Republican served as co-chairman of the task force with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat.
“Prudent moms and dads invest what they can toward their children’s college, and also toward their own retirements, even though those investments won’t bear fruit for years or even decades,” Mr. Young said. “Prudent nations do effectively the same thing when it comes to our national security.”
Eleven of the top 15 U.S. trade partners are former recipients of the country’s foreign assistance, he said, and if the U.S. wants “to send [its] troops to war less often,” then the government shouldn’t starve the development efforts of the resources they need.
The report offered several recommendations to streamline programs and save money while preserving a strong foreign aid program.
Michele Sumilas, a former USAID chief of staff, said disciplined decision-making — no matter the pressure from certain special interest groups — is key to deciding where the U.S. should devote its resources.
“I think that the way we should evaluate things is really to make sure that the programs in a country are led by country needs,” Ms. Sumilas said. “And those needs need to be translated to the U.S. government through the ambassador, and he/she needs to be very clear about what our objectives in that country [are]. And if something doesn’t fit, we need to say, ‘No thank you.’”
Hilda Arellano, a former counselor to USAID, said that providing foreign assistance is unnecessarily cumbersome and that fixing this process would greatly improve the effectiveness of U.S. developmental efforts.
“We need to spend less time coordinating with each other and more time out there getting it done in the right way,” Ms. Arellano said. “What I think we did find is that we were spending, and still are spending probably, an inordinate amount of time coordinating with each other. We have got to get those coordinating structures streamlined and correct.”