Reforming Aid: Transforming the World

The importance of effective foreign assistance in the wake of the severe crisis in the Horn of Africa and a concern over the impact of the proposed foreign aid cuts, were the two underlying themes of the special discussion , “Reforming Aid: Transforming the World” hosted by Global Washington on August 30.

The event featured an impressive gathering the speakers including, Paul Weisenfeld, Assistant to the Administrator, Bureau for Food Security, USAID; U.S Representative Adam Smith; Kent R. Hill Senior Vice President, International Programs, World Vision; and Sophia Belay, Micro insurance Program Coordinator, Oxfam America. They all spoke eloquently in favor of effective foreign assistance in the challenging budgetary environment and in light of the severity and the urgency of the crisis in the Horn of Africa and the famine in Somalia. With 12.4 million people affected by the famine, as Paul Weisenfeld pointed out, the current crisis in the Horn is the number one humanitarian priority in the U.S Government. “People are living a precarious life there and it is critical to have assistance to provide resilience,” said Weisenfeld.

In the past, the US has been a leader in providing humanitarian assistance to countries such as Ethiopia and Haiti but with the current crisis in the Horn, USAID has introduced changes to ensure effective foreign assistance delivery. USAID has incorporated three new steps. As Paul said, “We have been thinking in terms of three areas- in terms of early warning, in terms of prevention and in terms of response.” Early Warning incorporates The Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNet), including observations of agricultural land from satellites, food prices and available food crops. Prevention includes institution of the system for a “safety net” and work at the household level to provide assets in case of a crisis. The third area, Response is focused on addressing true issues. For example it is known that 50 percent of children die from diseases, not starvation. Therapeutic feeding is needed to address nutrition as well as health consequences. Using Secretary Clinton’s quote he said, “we can’t control drought, but we can control famine.”

What President Obama repeatedly emphasizes, effective foreign aid also incorporates the need to provide “sustainable solution to the crisis.” According to Weisenfeld, the “Feed the Future” program initiated under Obama Administration has recognized the need for long-term solutions to mitigate recurring droughts. It also addresses how the “Green Revolution” can be brought to places that were missed by the initial revolution. Focus on smallholder farms, gender issues and market access, according to him, are essential to have a lasting impact on reducing poverty. All these issues, he said, require massive efforts with “key party being the host government.”

“Development programs are central to national security” and to ensure the effectiveness of such programs, USAID has recognized the need to “be more rigorous about monitoring and evaluation,” using metrics that are valuable, not “counting widgets.” He explained, how Administrator Rajiv Shah is using USAID Forward to enable USAID become a 21st Century organization, and stressed using advances made in the field of science and technology and broadening the partner base of contractors, the private sector and the universities. In the Horn, he commented, we will always have crises, but we can “build capacity, and strengthen resiliency in communities.”

Throwing light on the challenging budgetary environment and tremendous burden on foreign aid, Congressman Adam Smith talked in favor of effective foreign assistance on grounds of global stability. “Global Stability,” he said, “is important for national security, further economic interests in terms of access to foreign markets and global health, as diseases do not recognize national boundaries.” He called Global Washington a “huge positive force” in terms of bringing people together and providing coordination and stressed the importance of garnering the support of the American people for the effective foreign assistance. He lauded the efforts made by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah to make the case for funding for foreign assistance and the contribution made by organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in improving the “quality and effectiveness of foreign assistance.” He also noted that Congress responds to its constituents and it is important to make the case for effective foreign assistance to the American people. He encouraged us to muster the support of the American people on the basis of two facts: “1) Foreign aid is not a lot of money, and 2) it does impact all of us, both from the moral obligation and from the view of countering instability in the world.”

Rep. Adam Smith drew a comparison between UK Department for International Development, (DFID) and USAID. He pointed out that DFID, as an independent ministry, works towards a unified goal of reducing poverty and controls 95% of the budget while USAID exists as one of the 37 agencies responsible for foreign assistance delivery with limited control over the budget. He strongly recommended the DFID model of an international development department to bring about foreign aid reform. In his words, “We need to have 1) a clear set of goals, focused on reducing poverty and 2) one person in charge.”

Kent Hill noted that 2/3 of the budget for NGO’s come from individual donors, foundations, and universities and not from the federal government. In the challenging political and economic climate, with the pressure on federal budget, he said, “We should realize that this is an opportunity for the private sector to move into the gap.” He justified foreign assistance on strategic, economic and moral grounds. He pointed out that the third “D” – Development – has only recently been added to the National Security Strategy, and commented that these are not really “three pillars” of the NSS, but rather “one pillar and two toothpicks.” He argued that “in this time of nasty political bickering” it is important to lock arms in a bipartisan way to support foreign assistance. We “need to find allies” and to “speak with one voice.” He emphasized the fact that making foreign assistance operate as effectively as possible is a moral and ethical imperative and ended by paraphrasing a quotation from his favorite author Albert Camus: Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being one in which children do not get enough to eat, “but we can limit the number who do.”

Commenting on the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Sophia Belay said, “We must do more before disaster strikes.” As part of foreign aid reform she also talked about the important factor of partnership, with the high need to transfer knowledge and to build local capacity. As an example of Oxfam’s work in building local capacity, she talked about the “safety net programs” that started in northern Ethiopia in 2009. She explained how, under this program, the farmers are encouraged to save so that insurance policies ensuring against insufficient rain are cheaper options. Lenders are more willing to lend to farmers who have insurance. The program, she said, has grown from 200 farmers in the first year to 13,000 insured farmers in 2011.

In response to a flurry of questions from the audience, about delivering foreign aid in “failed states,” the speakers talked about being selective in decisions for long term aid. As Weisenfeld said, “invest where we think we will see demonstrable results.” They also articulated that the private sector – corporations and foundations—are key partners in development work and concluded by stressing on the importance of gender in development and empowering and working with people on the ground.