US aid reforms lack staying power, says former congressman

Jim Kolbe, honorary co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. The former U.S. congressman talked about what U.S. aid programs have succeeded and failed in the last six years. Photo by: New America Foundation / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S. foreign assistance has seen some notable successes — and a few failures — during the last six years, but for progress to be sustained it needs to be written into law, Jim Kolbe, honorary co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, told aid supporters Thursday.

“Many of these reforms … have been put either informally, or by executive order, or by changes within the structure of the State Department and USAID and have not been codified into law,” Kolbe said, adding that such laws are “important in terms of the way Congress looks at these programs and funds these programs.”

Kolbe, a former 11-term congressman, just returned from a meeting with Tom Perriello, special assistant to Secretary of State John Kerry who is coordinating the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. The QDDR is supposed to provide a “blueprint” for the use of American civilian power — including foreign assistance — and should be completed by the end of the year.

Perriello has reportedly been meeting widely with development and diplomacy experts to gather input in terms of what the review, which is expected to be more limited in scope than its predecessor, should include.

“It’s appropriate today that we as an MFAN group gather here as we start the second round of the QDDR to look at what we’ve been able to achieve thus far,” Kolbe said.

Kolbe pointed to the Millennium Challenge Corp. and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, both enacted under former President George W. Bush, as examples for effective aid delivery.

He also noted a few failures.

The Global Health Initiative turned out not to be a success,” Kolbe said. He added: “One could call it a failure.”

Kolbe challenged Congress to do in 2014 what many aid advocates have called for and what lawmakers have failed to do for consecutive years: pass the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, for which both chambers have found bipartisan support.

“We came so extraordinarily close to getting that in the last year,” he said. “This is the year we really should do it.”

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.