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January 01, 2008

The Politics of Aid

by Gayle Smith

The evolution of foreign aid during the Bush administration has been impressively nonpartisan and strikingly political. On the one hand, two new signature programs—the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)—have been funded robustly and with strong support from both republicans and democrats. On the other hand, ideology and politics are shaping PEPFAR to reflect core conservative values and gearing America’s development policies and programs toward the goals of President Bush’s “global war on terror.”

In some ways, this situation is nothing new. Foreign aid has for decades been politicized and at times has served as a political football in partisan battles. During the 1990s, for example, both the level of U.S. foreign aid funding and the structure of our foreign aid system were at the core of bitter fights between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), and the Clinton administration. Since the Reagan administration, a provision referred to as “Mexico City language” or the “Global Gag Rule” has been dropped or reinstated depending on the political party in power. The provision, which stipulates that organizations providing abortions or advocating for abortion rights cannot receive U.S. foreign assistance, was taken off the books by President Clinton when he entered office and then reinstated by President Bush when he was sworn in. With the advent of PEPFAR, the Bush administration added another ideological element by requiring that one-third of PEPFAR funding be dedicated to abstinence programs.

Under both republican and democratic administrations, foreign aid has also traditionally been “political” in the sense that the majority of our aid dollars are allocated in support of foreign policies rather than a development agenda. Since the Camp David Accords of 1978, the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid have been Israel and Egypt, with other leading recipients over the years including Pakistan and, at times and consistent with the policies of the day, Sudan, Indonesia, or El Salvador.

But the politicization of aid by the Bush administration marks a distinct departure from the past, largely because of the strong and growing link between U.S. aid programs and allocations and the administration’s “global war on terror.” Most obvious is the United States’ allocating about $45 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq—an amount that dwarfs funding for the MCC, PEPFAR, Africa, and global humanitarian assistance combined.

Less visible but no less significant, however, has been the shift in the direction and management of development policy and foreign aid within the executive branch. When the Bush administration launched its ambitious reconstruction plan for Iraq, the lead agency was not the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), but the Coalition Provisional Authority led by the Department of Defense (DoD). Despite the enormous increases in funding represented by the MCC and PEPFAR, meanwhile, the largest proportional increase in foreign aid has been to the DoD, which has seen its piece of the foreign aid pie grow from 5.6 percent in 2002 to 21.7 percent in 2005.

The DoD’s growing role is also evident in the creation of AFRICOM, a new unified military command for Africa. Distinct from other regional commands, AFRICOM’s mandate includes serving as the regional interagency hub for the delivery of the development assistance needed to enhance security. The “politics” of this move derives not from the link between development and security, for it is evident that weak and fragile states pose greater security threats to the United States and greater security challenges to their own citizens than do their stronger and more capable counterparts, but instead from two distinct features of the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” and approach to foreign policy. First, the focus is almost exclusively on terrorism, and not on a host of other challenges—global pandemics, climate change, democratization, or trade—that U.S. foreign aid should address. Second, the implicit assumption is that the U.S. government agency best positioned to lead development efforts is not USAID, but the Pentagon.

To be fair, it appears that the growing role of the DoD has less to do with a power grab and more to do with the need to fill the development vacuum within the executive branch. In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched an initiative called “Transformational Diplomacy,” which was designed in part to align U.S. foreign aid programs by creating a new foreign aid bureau within the Department of State. But that new bureau has no jurisdiction over aid allocated to the DoD, the MCC, or PEPFAR, and rather than elevate the development agenda within the State Department—a civilian agency—it has seemingly ceded the development agenda to others. The limitations of this new status quo are evident; as was reported by the bipartisan HELP Commission, which was mandated by Congress to review U.S. foreign aid, “not one person appeared before this Commission to defend the status quo.”

Three factors will determine whether the new politics of foreign aid define the future of America’s development agenda or whether America opts for a different path.

First, a new administration in 2009 might—or might not—redefine the “global war on terror.” A fresh approach could recast the connection between foreign aid and security to place a greater emphasis on development than on counterterrorism.

Second, the next administration might—or might not—take a hard look at how our foreign aid works and press for reform.

Third, the growing and diverse constituency that has been central to achieving aid increases for PEPFAR and the MCC could, as it appears to be poised to do, press for the elevation of development and the creation of a new, independent development agency, led by a cabinet-level secretary.

If we stay on the present course, our foreign policy will remain distinctly two-dimensional and driven by defense and diplomacy. With change, however, we could see the emergence of the “third ‘d’”—“development”—referenced by George Bush and echoed by democrats, which could render our foreign aid less political, and more effective.

Gayle Smith

Gayle Smith is Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she leads the Sustainable Security Program and the Center’s work on foreign aid reform. She is also a co-founder of the ENOUGH Project, which aims to end crimes against humanity and genocide.