Hopes High For Foreign Aid In Obama Presidency Aid groups and development experts are urging the incoming Obama administration to revamp U.S. assistance to foreign nations and maintain spending despite the financial crisis at home.

Hopes High For Foreign Aid In Obama Presidency

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During this transition period, think tanks and government offices are pulling together policy options and briefing papers. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, experts on international development are urging the incoming administration to change how the country approaches foreign assistance.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, says on her desk these days is a briefing book by InterAction, an umbrella group of U.S. charities. It has lots of advice on revamping humanitarian and development work around the world.

Representative BETTY MCCOLLUM (Democrat, Minnesota): 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 backburner. And 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.

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

Representative MCCOLLUM: We desperately need to reform our system. 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.

KELEMEN: Most experts can agree on what's wrong with U.S. foreign assistance, but there are various ideas on how to fix it. McCollum wants to see a Cabinet-level official, someone at the table to make sure development gets the attention it deserves. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has serious doubts that will help.

Dr. NICHOLAS EBERSTADT (Scholar in Political Economy, American Enterprise Institute): 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. Development assistance programs, I think, are much better protected by being under the aegis of the State Department.

KELEMEN: Eberstadt would like to see the incoming administration focus on one of the toughest issues - rewriting legislation that governs foreign assistance. He says right now foreign aid programs 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.

Dr. EBERSTADT: It 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.

KELEMEN: 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 that dates back to the Kennedy era. That's something the president of InterAction, Sam Worthington, would like to see as well.

Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (President, InterAction): It may be actually telling that this 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.

KELEMEN: Some of the same people who have been out of government writing these papers about how to reform America's aid programs are now working on Mr. Obama's transition team. That's raising expectations in the aid community that development assistance will be a high priority. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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