Hopes High For Foreign Aid In Obama Presidency

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR follows the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays outlining the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

As think tanks and government offices use the presidential transition period to put together briefing papers and policy options for the next administration, aid groups and development experts are also doing their part — urging the incoming Obama administration to revamp U.S. foreign assistance and maintain spending despite the financial crisis at home.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) says that on her desk these days is a briefing book by InterAction, an umbrella group of U.S. charities that offers lots of advice on restructuring humanitarian and development work around the world.

"We are facing tremendous challenges both economically and fiscally right here at home, and there is going to be a lot of pressure to be focused on domestic issues and put foreign assistance on the back burner," McCollum says. "That would be a huge mistake. Because the challenges and the threats that are facing the American people from every corner of the world will not go away if we ignore them."

She says President-elect Barack Obama's administration and Congress should re-engage with the world and be more effective in fighting extreme poverty, pandemic disease and food insecurity. A member of the Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations for the House Appropriations Committee, McCollum says the many government agencies involved in foreign assistance makes it difficult to get a clear picture of just what the U.S. is already doing.

"We desperately need to reform our system," she says. "We need to re-engage in development in a whole new way, because it not only is, in my opinion, the morally right thing to do, but it is what will bring much more security to our country in the long run."

Most experts can agree on what's wrong with U.S. foreign assistance, but there are various ideas about how to fix it. McCollum wants to see a Cabinet-level official devoted to development — someone at the table to make sure the issue gets the attention she thinks it deserves.

But Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has serious doubts that such an appointment would help.

"It would be the runt of the litter, and it would lose out in all of the different bureaucratic competitions for policy attention in Washington," he says. "Development assistance programs, I think, are much better protected being under the aegis of the State Department."

Eberstadt says he would rather see the incoming administration focus on one of the toughest issues: rewriting legislation that governs foreign assistance.

Foreign aid programs, he says, are often the victims of a tug of war between the executive branch and Congress and are overly micromanaged to the point where most U.S. dollars end up staying at home. This "services our universities very well; it services our beltway bandit corporations very well; the only thing that doesn't get serviced terribly well is development in this current situation," Eberstadt says.

Now that the incoming president and the majority in Congress will be from the same party, Eberstadt says this could be the time to rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act, which dates to the Kennedy era. That is something Sam Worthington, the president of InterAction, would like to see, as well.

"It may be actually telling that [the Foreign Assistance Act] first came from President Kennedy, and that perhaps a President Obama, with Congress, will be rewriting into law how we will be relating to the world's poorest countries in a time when their futures and destinies are very much tied up with our own," Worthington says.

Some of the same people who have been out of government writing papers about how to reform U.S. aid programs are now working on Obama's transition team — raising expectations in the aid community that development assistance will be a high priority.

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