Fixing Foreign Assistance, Improving National Security

Foreign aid plays a vital role in American foreign policy. Senator Richard Lugar gives a blueprint for improving the way Washington gives it out.

One of the little noted efforts of the Bush Administration has been to raise foreign assistance to a national security priority. "Development reinforces diplomacy and defense", the White House said last year in a statement on national security strategy.

President Bush has created bold new aid programs, such as the $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to provide major support to the developing countries hit hardest by the AIDS pandemic, and the Millennium Challenge Account, which funnels extra millions to poor nations that are proven to be fighting corruption and governing justly.

Every year, President Bush has asked for robust increases in foreign aid spending to begin to restore the deep cuts of the 1990s. The regular foreign aid budget, exclusive of Iraq and Afghanistan supplementals, has grown from $14.9 billion in 2001 to $24.5 billion requested for 2008.

Equally important, the administration has for the first time tried to devise a strategic blueprint for foreign aid to set spending priorities that support our national security policy with the right mix of assistance to meet our humanitarian, economic development, security and political goals. For too long, spending has been tugged in different directions by Congress, non-governmental organizations, and ever-changing political and security perceptions.

However, a Republican staff study by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that this long-needed reform of the foreign assistance process is foundering due to uneven implementation and bureaucratic resistance. Government and private sector supporters of international development have failed to agree on the importance or the content of a foreign aid strategy.

For instance, we have never had a rational means for weighing the relative importance of aid to, say, Morocco, a friendly Arab nation, versus Haiti, a troubled neighbor. We often can't answer such simple questions as, "How much are we spending worldwide on democracy promotion, is that the right amount, is it working?"

The staff study found that the administration's first attempt to impose a strategic vision on development assistance programs was done hurriedly, with insufficient forethought, triggering a bureaucratic tsunami that swamped many foreign posts and created deep distrust between Washington headquarters and the field. This poor start gives the impression that the strategic reform effort may be doomed.

As a nation, we have to get this right. We are facing a worldwide threat from terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction. A foreign assistance program that fights endemic poverty and helps build just, open and well-governed societies will go a long way toward breaking the lure of violent extremism.  The commitment must be long-term and well-coordinated.

The study was conducted over the summer by Committee minority staffers who fanned out to 24 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

Encouragingly, the staff found that despite the proliferation of new money "spigots" outside the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the traditional vehicle for American foreign assistance, coordination on the ground, is generally working well, thanks to active management by the American ambassadors.

However, USAID remains the lynchpin of our assistance efforts, providing advice and support for the new initiatives, in addition to carrying out its core long-term programs. Cutbacks in USAID personnel and operating budgets have led to overburdened staff and costly outsourcing of responsibilities.

The study recommends a number of ways to improve our development assistance efforts and to repair the broken reform process. Most importantly, it calls on the president to "design a foreign assistance strategy that explains both the national security requirement and the humanitarian imperative that drive our government's investment in foreign aid."

Accordingly, the Secretary of State should be given new authority to ensure that all foreign assistance, whether from State, USAID, the Pentagon or other government agencies, is in our foreign policy interests and conforms to the president's strategic goals.

Finally, Congress has a part to play. In cooperation with the executive branch, it should undertake an overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act, which has not been rewritten since its inception in 1961, to reflect the new structure of foreign aid and to give cohesion to foreign assistance strategy.

Our national security policy will be strong only if all its pillars are strong. Everyone must work harder to ensure that the billions of dollars in foreign assistance are spent with an overall strategy for success and a sense of common purpose.


Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) is the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.