The Foreign Assistance Act: new and improved

Article Date

06 September 2011

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The United States is the largest bilateral donor of official development assistance in the world, providing billions of dollars every year for humanitarian and long-term development support. Right now, thanks to this assistance, millions of people affected by drought and famine in the Horn of Africa are receiving food, water and other vital emergency supplies. Haitians are rebuilding their roads, businesses and spirit after the earthquake of 2010. And children around the world are receiving life-saving vaccines.

Despite this far-reaching impact on the ground, the legislative framework established by Congress to guide these investments is embarrassingly out of date and slows innovation in development practices. The Foreign Assistance Act, the law that established the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and governs the kinds of assistance the U.S. provides was signed into law 50 years ago this week, on Sept. 4, 1961. Since then, the FAA has been amended beyond recognition, resulting in cumbersome reporting processes and ever-expanding, uncoordinated bureaucracy.

On Sept. 8, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations, will take a necessary step toward improving this outdated and unwieldy framework by releasing his version of a rewritten, modernized Foreign Assistance Act. This “discussion draft,” as Rep. Berman refers to it, marks the end of a two-year process to solicit feedback from partners in the field, experts around the world and officials within the U.S. administration on how improved legislation could make our development dollars more efficient and effective.

As pressure on the U.S. budget has already translated into significant cuts to foreign assistance accounts, reforming foreign assistance is more important than ever. Even though foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget, Congress and the administration must insist that every penny is spent wisely. Recognizing the fiscal realities, Rep. Berman’s legislation does not authorize new funding targets but rather focuses on steps to make the money we already spend more efficient.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have already initiated some reforms to foreign assistance, such as integrating gender equality as a cross-cutting goal of all programs. But, as the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) emphasizes, allies in Congress also are needed to permanently codify these reforms in legislation. Congress and the administration must work together to forge a shared vision of foreign assistance and ensure that progress made today is guaranteed tomorrow.

To begin building a bipartisan partnership to rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act, Rep. Berman will release his draft at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and Paul Wolfowitz, a leading neoconservative expert and former president of the World Bank, will set the stage for Rep. Berman’s remarks. His draft legislation will serve as the starting point for negotiations between Democrats and Republicans about practical steps that can be taken in this Congress to improve the U.S. model of foreign aid. Though this is but one step in a long process, it is the starting point to ensure that foreign assistance achieves its primary purpose: creating the conditions where it is no longer needed.