A Push for 'Department of International Development'

International development needs to become a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy if the country wants to regain its standing as a champion of democracy, according to a report from the New America Foundation.

The report called "Revitalizing U.S. Democracy Promotion A Comprehensive Plan for Reform" by Maria Figueroa Küpçü and Michael A. Cohen said the Bush administration's "freedom agenda" was largely a failure and set back the U.S. goal of promoting democracy. The election of Barack Obama, they wrote, was a positive step in correcting this, but it is not enough.

"It is naive to think that such a transformation is simply a matter of changing national leaders," according to the report. "The challenges confronting America's ability to seed democracy are numerous, and meeting them will require far-reaching institutional changes that go to the heart of this country's approach to foreign assistance."

The first step in achieving these changes is to create a cabinet-level Department of International Development. This department would have responsibility for all development, humanitarian, democratization, public health and post-conflict issues. It would also control all government democracy promotion programs currently scattered across the bureaucracy.

"We have a 'democracy bureaucracy' that is politicized, unwieldy, misunderstood, uncoordinated, and characterized by scant strategic thinking and a cumbersome management system," the report said.

According to the report, "sharper delineations" should be made between types of assistance such as development, democratization, or public health assistance. Each of these needs to be treated separately to encourage better use and improve allocation of resources.

The criteria used by MCC should also be used as a condition of aid, the report said. Right now, MCC uses a series of independently judged criteria to determine if a country is eligible for aid. This approach should be adopted across the federal aid bureaucracy.

The report also called for doubling of National Endowment for Democracy funding and increased support to the United Nations Democracy Fund. Also, a foreign assistance coordinator should be appointed at each U.S. embassy, and diplomatic efforts should be used to ensure that foreign governments don't meddle in the affairs of civil society organizations.

The calls for reform contained in the report are familiar, as many in the development community have been clamoring for such changes since Obama took office. One of the most common calls is for a new structure that can bring together disparate elements of the foreign assistance regime into one agency. Many of the inefficiencies in the U.S. development apparatus stem from failure to communicate between offices and agencies.

"The ability to think cross-agency doesn't exist in Washington," said Raymond Shonholtz, founder and president of Partners for Democratic Change, at a recent forum calling for changes at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

About the author

  • David Francis

    David is a Washington-based journalist and former Devex staffer who spearheaded Devex's "Obama's Foreign Aid Reform" blog. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, SportsIllustrated.com, San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy magazine, and the Washington Monthly. David holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a graduate degree from Georgetown University.