CQ Roll Call

Lester Munson - "Foreign Aid 'Barnacles' Impede Effectiveness, Experts say," in CQ

August 31, 2016

Foreign Aid ‘Barnacles’ Impede Effectiveness, Experts Say
By Rachel Oswald, CQ Roll Call

Foreign aid advocates, buoyed by modest legislative successes this summer, are now pushing lawmakers to consider the most comprehensive overhaul of U.S. foreign assistance programs in 30 years.

The foreign aid budget, still based on Cold War rationale,  has become encrusted with outmoded policy and spending requirements that harken back to a time when the Soviet Union was the No. 1 threat and supporting U.S. private businesses was a widely accepted goal of foreign assistance.

Congress has fallen into the habit of renewing foreign aid programs with little evidence they work - a fact that frustrates Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who has discussed the need to pass a new foreign assistance authorization bill. The timeline for the bill is unclear, and it could be kicked into the next Congress.

But the committee’s top Democrat, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who could hold the Foreign Relations gavel if Democrats win control of the Senate in November, supports Corker’s goals.
“Our foreign aid policies today seem mired in a Cold War mindset that values buying friends in the developing world over establishing the right environment for foreign economic growth to occur,” Corker, R-Tenn., said at a July hearing on the efficacy of U.S. assistance to developing nations.

The 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (PL 87-195) has been updated multiple times but the last time Congress passed a comprehensive reauthorization measure was 1985. Because so much time has passed, a lot of language remains in the law that analysts say no longer makes sense for the post-Cold War and post-Sept. 11 world.

“There are still plenty of Cold War barnacles in the Foreign Assistance Act that are frankly embarrassing,” said Diana Ohlbaum, a former senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee under then-Chairman Howard L. Berman, D-Calif. Ohlbaum led the effort to produce in late 2010 a comprehensive foreign assistance overhaul bill that failed to get out of committee after Republicans took back the House in elections that year.

Particularly egregious in Ohlbaum’s eyes is a restriction in the law that prohibits any U.S. aid going to a nation that is “controlled by the international Communist conspiracy.” Congress routinely ignores that policy by funding security and economic assistance to Vietnam and democracy, human rights, rule of law and Tibetan programs in China.

“So, presumably the president has to write a waiver and a report to Congress each year for aid to Vietnam, Cuba and China,” Ohlbaum said, noting that the prohibition extends to an entire country and not just its government.

U.S.-funded democracy promotion and broadcasting programs in Cuba are another Cold War-relic, experts say.

From fiscal 1984 through fiscal 2015, Congress provided nearly $800 million for broadcasting to Cuba, which covers the Radio and TV Marti news programs, according to the Congressional Research Service. The programs, which air anti-Castro viewpoints, have had a questionable impact on Cuban civil society, in part because Havana routinely blocks their signals.

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from spending approximately $30 million annually for the programs. House appropriators are so wedded to the idea of maintaining anti-Castro programming that they included a provision in the fiscal 2017 foreign aid spending bill (HR 5912) to explicitly block an Obama administration plan to turn the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Marti, into an independent grantee organization that would also carry out broadcasting programs in the greater Latin American and Caribbean region.

“That is still a political football,” said Ohlbaum, now an independent consultant, of the advocacy around the Cuba democracy programming. “It is not strictly partisan. It is about the lobbying weight of the Cuban-American community.”

Another sore thumb for advocates of efficiency is the U.S. Agency for International Development-administered Food for Peace Program, which provides U.S. food commodities to communities and organizations abroad, either for direct distribution or for sale to fund local development initiatives. While the program, which dates back to the 1950s, is overseen by the Agriculture committees and is authorized in the multi-year farm bill, the House Foreign Affairs panel also has a jurisdictional role.

The program is a clear example of tied aid, or foreign assistance funding that must be spent on organizations and businesses from the donor country that in turn do work abroad.

The Food for Peace program, which averages about $1.9 billion annually, is hamstrung by congressional requirements, which include mandating food be purchased from U.S. farmers and shipped mostly by U.S.-flagged vessels. In practice, these requirements have suppressed the development of sustainable agriculture markets in Africa and slowed food delivery to communities experiencing starvation and malnutrition in faraway corners of the world.

“In general, the idea of tied aid is wonderful for domestic constituencies but it shouldn’t be called foreign aid, it should be called domestic constituency aid,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, an expert on economic development and foreign aid at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Eric Muñoz, a senior policy adviser with the anti-poverty organization Oxfam America, wants to protect money for food aid, but he and other advocates want it spent smarter.

“This program is one that has been devised in some ways to benefit American private interests as much as it has been to feed hungry people and we really need to see that stopped,” Muñoz said. “The fact that the Food for Peace Act is incorporated as part of the Farm Bill demonstrates that there is a strong interest in seeing that program linked to U.S. domestic interests including farm interests but also shipping interests.”

Foreign aid advocates were delighted earlier this summer with the congressional passage of  a law (PL 114-191) that requires U.S. agencies to publish performance data, contracts and other detailed information on their foreign aid programs. They hope the law will bring more accountability to U.S. foreign assistance. However, some development professionals are skeptical Congress can ever bring itself to defund pet projects, regardless of what the evidence reveals.

Steve Bucci, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, thinks it’s likely that lawmakers will start hacking at programs they don’t like. But years of partisan wrestling around perennial aid issues like family planning and climate change have left Democrats and Republicans well-equipped to defend their favored projects.

“I think the two sides are already pretty entrenched to defend what they like and attack what they don’t like on both sides of the aisle,” said Bucci, who formerly worked on Iraqi security assistance issues during the George W. Bush administration.

Lester Munson, former Senate Foreign Relations staff director under Corker, defended the aid transparency law, saying it will have an impact far beyond Congress.

“The audience for transparency is not just the few members and staff who are working directly on the issues. It’s for advocates, it’s for professionals who work in the field, it’s for reporters,” said Munson, a former deputy assistant administrator with USAID, now with the lobbying firm BGR. “What you’ll ultimately produce with more transparency and accountability is a better conversation  . . . .about these issues and what’s the best way to do things.”

Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Global Development, says she recognizes that even with the “best, most indisputable evidence in the world,” lawmakers may still decide to pursue their own differing agendas.

At the same, Dunning, who specializes in aid effectiveness, says she believes there is a congressional appetite for moving forward with common-sense foreign aid reform, as evidenced by passage this year of a new food security law (PL 114-195) that authorizes USAID for the first time to provide cash transfers to local and regional governments for the purchase of emergency food aid. Another example is a law (PL 114-121) cleared by Congress in February that codifies the administration’s Power Africa program, which seeks to spread electricity in sub-Saharan Africa through more public-private initiatives.

“There is a moment for foreign aid right now,” Dunning said. “If you look at all of the issues out there, I think foreign aid and development is one where you can clearly say there has been some really interesting bipartisan work being done.”

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