Foreign aid in Congress: Five contradictions

The U.S. Capitol. Photo by: Aaron Brazell / CC BY-NC-SA

EDITOR’S NOTE: The U.S. Agency for International Development reform is being discussed in Congress and five contradictions come up anytime foreign aid is tackled by U.S. lawmakers, writes Sarah Jane Staats, director of the rethinking U.S. foreign assistance program at the Center for Global Development.

I was pleasantly surprised by the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week on the fiscal year 2014 USAID and MCC budgets. I expected a remix of the partisan spats I watched two years ago. Instead, there was impressive congressional turnout plus serious questions and thorough answers. There was even some friendly competition between USAID and MCC. But five contradictions come up anytime foreign aid is on the Hill and the latest budget hearing was no exception.

It’s worth watching the webcast to catch the high notes: calls for rethinking how and where and why the United States provides foreign assistance; concerns about the fragmented aid architecture; praise for the MCC approach to selecting and working with countries and evaluating programs; support for USAID’s procurement, staffing and food aid reforms; and applause and pressure for USAID and MCC to share more and better data. 

But here are five contradictions that keep coming up (including in other hearings this week):

1. Foreign aid must support national security, but don’t give it to anyone who doesn’t like us. Republicans and Democrats alike say foreign aid must support national security interests. But more often than not, someone will also say the United States should not give aid anywhere there is hostility to the United States (this came from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) yesterday, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment, nor will it be the last). But how can the United States use aid to improve national security if it only gives it in places already wholly supportive of the United States?

2. Cut foreign aid spending, but not on ‘x.’ Reducing federal spending is the name of the game on Capitol Hill. Everyone wants to see cuts as long as it isn’t in their preferred sector or country or initiative. The debate between the administration and Congress on priorities is part of the process. But the attempt to please everyone results in a little bit of money in a lot of places and often not much to show in the way of results which, it turns out, isn’t in anyone’s interest.

3.You are responsible, but who is in charge? Hearings are designed to conduct oversight; government witnesses are expected to defend their budgets, programs and results. But as Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) asked yesterday, “Who is in charge of development in the world?” Is it Defense? State? USAID? MCC? And if almost all of the aid budget is pre-allocated to presidential initiatives and congressional directives, how responsible is any agency head for overall spending choices or changes? 

4. Brand it, damn it. The last time I heard so much about branding US foreign assistance with the American flag, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) were in charge of the House International Relations Committee. It was back in full force last week. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) called for a “big flag on the bag” and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) echoed the call. There are benefits to well-marked aid (in response to humanitarian emergencies, for example). But there are times when brand competition (between US government agencies and multiple NGOs and/or contractors) is just silly and other times the flag is counter-productive or dangerous to the people running the programs and receiving the benefits (think democracy and human rights programs or food aid in Syria; see also contradiction number 1 above). My former colleague Ruth Levine says to rebrand America, unbrand aid

5.85 percent of constituents want to cut foreign aid; 15 percent approve of Congress. Even when foreign aid budgets were growing and the United States was creating new agencies like the MCC and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, I’d sit in conversations with congressional staff who would say “you know I care about these issues, but they really don’t sell in my district”. Today, I hear it in starker terms, like “the only area Americans agree we should cut from the federal budget is foreign aid” (Americans also think foreign aid makes up 25 percent of the federal budget and think it should be more like 10 percent, but it’s really closer to one percent). Yesterday, it was Rep. Yoho who said 85 percent of the people in his district want to end foreign aid. Rep. Gerald Connelly (D-VA) said he hears this all the time at town hall meetings. I can’t help but think congressional approval is also 15 percent. Maybe we can set aside numbers that don’t really tell us very much and get on with things?

I know there are lots of reasons these contradictions exist, but if we could get past them–or even agree to set them aside–the administration might have more space to make difficult but necessary choices about where and how it invests development dollars. In return, Congress and the taxpayers might finally get the evidence they need that US development dollars get results and support America’s economic, moral and security interests. 

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Center for Global Development. Read the original article.

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