Elephants in the Room
Here’s How Republicans Can Learn to Like Foreign Aid Again
Too often conservatives are faced with what they see as a choice between support for aid and their conservative principles.
After months of uncertainty, the president’s fiscal year 2018 “skinny budget,” released on March 16, was the first clear indication of the Trump administration’s approach to global development. The budget seeks a 28 percent reduction in funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department in order to pay for equivalent increases in defense spending, and foreshadows the possibility of significant structural changes. The proposed cuts are the first step in what could be a contentious process between Congress and the president regarding the U.S. international affairs budget, dividing Republicans who have supported American global development leadership since the George W. Bush era but who also support overall budget savings and a stronger national defense.
While Congress appears inclined to largely restore the international affairs funding through the budget and appropriations process, it hardly means that State and USAID would be spared. The president has broad authority to determine policy, priorities, staffing, and even agency architecture — changes that could be more consequential than the proposed funding cuts. For its part, the White House surely knows that if it wants to find savings in the small sliver of the budget pie that foreign aid represents, the current dynamics do not really favor that approach. Congress will send to the president some form of spending legislation that tracks more closely with existing priorities than the president’s budget request does. In this or any likely budget and appropriations scenario, big changes by the administration without congressional support are less likely to be transformational, lasting, or even cost saving.
While maintaining funding is an immediate requirement of Congress, it’s not a strategy for the long-term. For that, legislators should use the coming debate as an opportunity to address the reasons aid has been targeted in the first place. Foreign aid’s unpopularity among conservatives — and thus its political vulnerability now — has as much or more to do with the belief that it doesn’t work as it has to do with an objection to spending money overseas. There’s a very good case in favor of effective foreign aid to be made to the many conservatives who support American global leadership. But what they often hear is unpersuasive, with little room for essential distinctions between effective aid and wasteful or ineffective aid. Too often conservatives are faced with what they see as a choice between support for aid and their conservative principles.
It’s hard to see any winners coming out of the process as it is now shaping up. But there is a potentially constructive alternative that could better serve all sides. A shared approach between Congress and the administration on foreign aid reform provides both the best basis for cooperation and a way to address foreign aid’s seemingly perpetual political vulnerabilities.
For many conservatives in Congress, aid reform is a clear pathway on which to reconcile internationalist instincts with aid skepticism and commitment to good stewardship of taxpayer funds, allowing for a conditional embrace of aid’s legitimacy and importance. For the administration, a shared reform process is the most straightforward path to the desired savings. For aid supporters, an aid portfolio that is subject to a reform process by a broad spectrum of viewpoints will enjoy greater buy-in, and is thus far less vulnerable to funding uncertainty in the future.
In this context, one proposal that is gaining attention is some form of a comprehensive review of the U.S. foreign aid portfolio — be it top to bottom or bottom-up — with the British bilateral and multilateral aid reviews providing useful examples of what a successful process can do. Whatever the format, the outcome should be largely the same: funding priorities better aligned with overall objectives, on which Congress and the president largely agree.
To be successful, an aid review process must be based on some accepted, shared points.
First, only with a shared understanding of what the United States aims to achieve with its aid and how the country defines success can America effectively review aid. A review might improve the aid portfolio’s performance by reducing waste and redundancies, but performance toward what? Absent agreement on overall goals and definitions of success, an aid review would produce a collection of programs that in the aggregate do not constitute a strategy. Thus, a review process should seek to build a shared vision that informs future funding decisions, not just identify waste in the current portfolio.
Second, a review must be undertaken with the goal of improving aid effectiveness, not simply reducing costs by a predetermined amount. A successful review process must balance the need for overall savings with the fact that a reduction in funding is not the same as a reduction in waste. Nor is a reduction in funding the same as an increase in value. Absent a review, a 28 percent cut risks leaving 72 percent of waste in place, rendering aid less capable of fulfilling its important role in U.S. foreign policy and actually decreasing the overall value for the taxpayer.
Third, a comprehensive aid review must include the entire aid portfolio of the U.S. government, not just that of USAID. In recent decades, multiple agencies and departments have gotten into the aid business, providing both real advantages and challenges to overall effectiveness and accountability. Assessing the interagency implementation model is essential to understanding whether and when this approach provides greater accountability, value, and performance, or results in discord and redundancies.
Fourth, Congress and the president should agree on a process that necessarily requires action on a review’s findings or recommendations. Such a requirement would incentivize participation and consensus, because the varied interests would understand that they are better off helping shape the outcome because they have to live with it. Such a requirement would also ensure that a review is less likely to wind up in the graveyard of commissions.
Finally, a review should include a conversation about the basis on which the United States sets its priorities for allocating aid — whether it is determined by need, merit, national security, the potential return on investment, or other reasons. There is no single right answer, nor are the many justifications for aid spending necessarily discrete. But understating the values that are the basis of U.S. aid would help us better understand what America’s goals should be, and what it expects aid to accomplish. The answers could provide some surprises in terms of finding common ground, and would provide a much clearer explanation to a skeptical public about the importance of global development.
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