- - Sunday, October 1, 2017


Americans are generous people. Every year they voluntarily contribute tens of billions of dollars to charities and faith-based groups trying to help needy people around the world.

They have also watched their government spend more than three trillion of their tax dollars on international development projects and humanitarian assistance since World War II.

President Trump is now asking just how effectively Washington is spending those tax dollars. It’s a fair question.

Today’s foreign and security challenges are vastly different from what they were during the Cold War. Still, the overarching goals of U.S. assistance programs remain unchanged: to assist people in crises; enhance opportunities for American products and investments and promote our national security by supporting allies and countering adversaries.

Unfortunately, decades of lobbying by special interests, combined with the need of successive U.S. presidents trying innovative ways to help manage emerging foreign crises, have gradually warped, twisted and complicated our foreign aid offerings. Today, it’s a real mess, with more than 25 large and small agency “chefs” stirring our foreign aid broth.

To help Congress and the Trump administration sort it all out, The Heritage Foundation recently published a comprehensive study assessing strengths and weaknesses of our foreign aid initiatives. It concluded that what’s needed is a complete overhaul of the agencies involved and the assistance programs they administer.

During the Cold War, the primary source of investment for developing countries was development assistance from Western governments. Today, however, private capital flows into those countries dwarf government-provided assistance.

That’s a good thing. But America’s development assistance programs largely have not reflected that reality.

Instead of continuing the development programs of the 56-year-old United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Heritage recommends shifting them to a newer, and better, model — the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

The corporation, established in 2004 by President George W. Bush, relies upon — and even demands — active participation and accountability by the nations that receive funds. For example, they must demonstrate (not merely promise) a commitment to removing the biggest obstacle to economic development: corruption and weak rule of law. The corporation also has a tangible goal for the nations it helps: “graduation.” In other words, it channels aid to developing countries that are putting into place the policy and legal groundwork necessary for prosperity, so that they can reach the point of no longer needing help from American taxpayers.

That’s the goal that sets the Millennium Challenge Corporation apart from many other federal agencies. All too often, those agencies seem more invested in perpetuating their programs than in accomplishing their mission.

Heritage also recommends restructuring the rest of USAID and incorporating it into the State Department. This would consolidate the many duplicative programs between the two agencies.

Defenders of the status quo — those who insist upon maintenance of a strict Chinese wall between State and USAID — argue that the two agencies have different missions (diplomacy and development) and require people with different skill sets. Some have even called for elevating the USAID administrator to a Cabinet rank — a peer to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instead of a subordinate.

In fact, State and USAID have the same mission: executing the best possible foreign policies. As a recent secretary of State might put it, they are “stronger together.”

In many ways, they are already one agency. They share U.S. embassy facilities around the world and hire personnel under the same Foreign Service Act.

But in other, costly, ways they are far apart. The agencies have different corporate cultures and redundant administrative structures. And both have too many bureaucrats and government contractors seeking to feather their own nests by gaming the current dysfunctional and wasteful system.

USAID does humanitarian assistance well. The State Department’s PEPFAR and related programs do a good job on global programs to fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria.

But America needs just one secretary of State, empowered with one streamlined team to bring to bear all available foreign assistance resources to strike the best deal possible.

America needs a 21st century foreign aid program, too. One that has been recalibrated to make sure that relief aid goes to the people in greatest need, and development aid goes to the countries best positioned to make the most of that opportunity. One that meets, head-on, the new global challenges and better serves America’s national security, foreign policy, and economic interests.

That will requiring restructuring, realigning, and rethinking a Byzantine foreign aid “system” that has morphed into something far larger, complex, and wasteful than the one today’s world needs.

• James M. Roberts, a 25-year veteran of the State Department who worked closely with USAID, is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for International Trade and Economics.

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