chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 01, 2008

Foreign Assistance: An Agenda for Reform

by Henrietta Holsman Fore

In a May 2007 speech addressing the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, President Bush said, “We are a compassionate nation. When Americans see suffering and know that our country can help stop it, they expect our government to respond. We help the least fortunate across the world because our conscience demands it. We also recognize that helping struggling nations succeed is in our interest.”

With the full support of Congress, America’s deeds have matched the President’s words. Since 2000, the United States has launched the largest international development effort since the Marshall Plan, nearly tripling U.S. aid worldwide. Our assistance provides food to the hungry, medicine to the sick, security to troubled regions, and educational and economic opportunities to people of every creed and culture.

This dramatic increase in American foreign assistance in the twenty-first century required collaboration among all stakeholders—between Congress and the administration, both political parties, and the broad and vibrant development community, without whose partnership and support our efforts on the ground would not be possible.

In America today, old divisions between those who saw foreign aid as a tool to influence strategic partners and those who viewed it as a means of doing good in the world are giving way to a new unity of purpose. A growing consensus exists that global development is both a moral ideal and a national interest. From community leaders to corporate leaders, religious leaders to movie stars to college students, Americans recognize that if we—as members of the global community—are to address the most difficult challenges of our time, we must all work together.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has rightly noted, as we increase the quantity of our foreign assistance, we must also work to improve its quality. That is why she launched an effort to reform U.S. foreign assistance on January 19, 2006.

When Secretary Rice arrived at the Department of State three years ago, she asked a basic question: How much is the U.S. government spending on democracy promotion? This question goes to the heart of our post-9/11 foreign policy of protecting America by encouraging good government around the world. Incredibly, she found it extremely difficult to get a complete answer. Our foreign assistance was stove­piped into numerous accounts, overseen by multiple officials, each with different standards of measurement and different ways to judge success or failure. This situation left decision makers, including the secretary of state and members of Congress, without an effective way to judge trade-offs, weigh priorities, or allocate money in a truly strategic way to meet America’s foreign policy goals.

Such a system would be considered deficient under any circumstances. But in the post-9/11 environment, as we focus on the threats germinating in failing states and work with our local partners to transform conditions within those states, Secretary Rice found the situation unacceptable. To begin to address the problem, she established the position of Director of Foreign Assistance and delegated authority over most forms of Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) foreign assistance to that official.

We are at the beginning of this important reform process, not the end. We must continually work to improve. There is no question that reform and institutional change are difficult. They take time; but by engaging the international community, public and private partners, and Congress, we can make significant improvements. Already, we have begun taking some key steps, such as starting to develop the tools to link assistance programs across the U.S. government to our foreign policy goals and developing a common language and architecture within which the strategic discussion can be framed and trade-offs made.

The tools we have begun to create are guided by the government-wide commitment to a shared goal—the goal Secretary Rice has articulated as Transformational Diplomacy: to help build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.

We have made significant progress, consistent with the need to improve the coherence and coordination of Department of State and USAID foreign assistance. The first step in this reform effort was developing a new strategic framework for foreign assistance and beginning to agree, as a government, on how we would define progress. Now that we, the U.S. government, have a frame­work and the beginnings of a common language around foreign assistance, we must work to ensure that our activities are targeted to help countries move from a relationship defined by dependence on traditional foreign assistance to one defined by partnership.

A set of common definitions and indicators, on which we are still soliciting and accepting suggestions, will allow us to compare partner, program, and country performance across agencies and sources of funding. These new tools help us to create detailed country-level operational plans that describe how resources are being used. These tools allow us to provide Congress, the American people, our partners around the world, and those we seek to assist with the means to readily access and understand foundational components of our foreign assistance initiatives, namely:

  • What are we trying to accomplish with our foreign assistance in a particular country?
  • With whom are we working—both inside and outside the U.S. government—toward our objectives?
  • How much are we spending across the board?
  • What results are we achieving?

We have used these tools to, for the first time in the fiscal year 2008 budget, and then again with the fiscal year 2009 budget, submit a fully integrated foreign assistance budget request, taking into account a broader totality of U.S. government resources—including resources provided by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Looking Forward

I have witnessed the impact of U.S. programs addressing the humanitarian crises in Burma, the West Bank Gaza, Darfur, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I led a delegation of international donors to the unstable regions of Afghanistan to streamline international coordination, objectives, and resources. I am also constantly engaged, both in Washington and abroad, in working with our domestic agencies and the international community to address the humanitarian and development challenges of climate change, food insecurity, and the volatile oil market. As evidenced by the degree of turmoil and poverty in the world right now, never before has foreign assistance been more critical to our national security and to the citizens of the developing world.

Our foreign aid programs save lives and lift individuals from poverty. But we do not simply want to achieve disconnected good outcomes; we want to lift nations, and all their citizens—including the poorest—to sustainable prosperity. We are creating, and becoming part of, a Global Development Commons: A community of continuous and real-time information exchange, coordination, partnership, and action between public and private donors, agencies, non-governmental organizations, host governments, and civil society—all in constant collaboration. A Global Development Commons gives people in the developing world the tools they need to lead their own development. We want to encourage more donor nations. We want countries to build their own schools and train their own teachers. We want people to build their own futures, their own nations. Ultimately, if our aim is to significantly improve the human condition, we must develop the tools to enable us to know if we are reaching our goals.

As a global community, we have to find new ways of doing business together. We must effectively leverage corporate and private-sector skills and capital in every program to assure greater returns and more far-reaching results. Reform that truly revitalizes takes time. The path from poverty to prosperity is a long one. I have seen enough to know that a shared vision cannot be realized in a matter of months, or by any one administration, or any one generation of development leadership. Instead, what I offer—what every one of us has to offer—is simply a step in the right direction.

As we move forward, we must always remember that at a time when some of the greatest threats to our people come from conflicts within states, it is not enough to have a foreign assistance program that merely cements government-to-government relations. Improving the quality of our assistance is essential to transformation and we cannot improve the quality without reform. Should we ever lose our bearings in the complexity of how we do this work, the surest, truest compass point is to stop and remember why we do it. We serve the people who have the least hope, opportunity, and prosperity, and who want to build their lives, their nations, and their futures. This work is urgent, essential to our national security, and reflects American values. The time for action is now.

This article is a work of the U.S. Agency for International Development, is not protected by copyright, and is in the public domain. It may be reproduced, published, or otherwise used without obtaining the author’s or publisher’s permission and with proper attribution.

Henrietta Holsman Fore

Henrietta Holsman Fore is the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the director of United States Foreign Assistance. She reports to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and holds the rank of Deputy Secretary of State.