John Kerry Unveils US Foreign Aid Reform Proposal

Change is almost here, perhaps. A new reform proposal pushed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry (D-MA) aims to deliver a much-anticipated overhaul of U.S. foreign assistance programs. But questions remain.

The Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act sets out with the noble goal to strengthen the capacity, transparency, and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance while responding to new challenges of the 21st century, according to the bill’s text.

This proposal comes on the heels of similar legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).

Kerry, who has spoken about his desire to reform U.S. foreign assistance, co-sponsored his legislation with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) and four other senators.

According to its authors, the proposal - if adopted - would:

• Restore strategic thinking to the U.S. Agency for International Development by reestablishing a bureau for policy and strategic planning.

• Strengthen the coordination of U.S. foreign aid in the field under the guidance of the USAID mission director.

• Increase accountability and transparency of U.S. foreign aid programs by establishing an independent Council on Research and Evaluation in the executive branch.

• Mandate a comprehensive review of all aspects of USAID’s human resources and establish a high-level task force to advice on critical personnel issues.

Some voices in the aid community have already welcomed the legislation.

“Rebuilding USAID is critical to effective delivery of U.S. foreign assistance to fight poverty - which is recognized as key to America’s strategic and security interests,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “We are working hard to build momentum to get reform passed this year.”

Oxfam has been a prime advocate for major U.S. aid reform.

Kerry’s proposal also comes on the heels of comments by the current U.S. Sectary of State, Hillary Clinton, that the status of development aid must be elevated to stand alongside diplomacy and defense. To revamp the first two, both the Department of State and USAID are undergoing a strategic evaluation dubbed the “Quadrennial Review of Diplomacy and Development.”

At this point it is unclear how the newly introduced Senate proposal will affect the much debated ”F process” that brought USAID under greater control of the State Department.

Any reform would most likely be implemented by a yet-to-be-named USAID administrator. Intense speculation has focused on Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor and global health innovator, as the next USAID chief. Farmer, who co-founded Partners in Health, is also a constituent of Kerry.

Currently, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 is the core law that governs USAID; it has been criticized by some aid groups as being grossly antiquated for modern development work.

About the author

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    Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.