Congress finds bipartisan support for foreign aid and aid reform

In the course of two days last week, the U.S. Congress passed two foreign aid bills.

What’s more, in the course of five months, Congress has passed three foreign aid bills!

All three bills passed with strong bipartisan leadership and support.

Equally important, all three bills reflect a new era of a more modernized approach to assistance.

The bills avoid many of the problems of past aid legislation, including micromanagement, earmarks, and requirement of frequent reports that are seldom read by members of Congress or their staffs. Each bill was developed in cooperation with the Obama administration and reflects its policies and civil society priorities. And they emphasize strategic approaches, results, use of data, monitoring and evaluation, and learning.

The Foreign Assistance Accountability and Transparency Act of 2016, sponsored by Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ted Poe and Democrats Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Gerry Connolly, is grounded in important principles of foreign aid reform. It enacts into law key policies advocated by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and supported by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition and many other international development and foreign policy organizations. Robust evaluation and aid transparency, first elevated as elements of the Millennium Challenge Corporation by the Bush administration and later adopted by the Obama administration across all foreign affairs agencies, are institutionalized by the bill. The bill calls for two reports 18 months after enactment, not annual, year-after-year reports, which had been the normal practice and usually resulted in shelves of unread reports. One report will be from the president outlining the monitoring and evaluation guidelines called for in the report, and the other report will be from the Government Accountability Office assessing those guidelines.

This type of independent, objective evaluation is essential to improving assistance; it assesses what we have tried and improves our understanding of what does and does not work. When aggregated across multiple evaluations of similar programs, it produces new knowledge and learning.

Transparency, another important element of aid reform, brings multiple benefits. It provides all stakeholders, including Congress, U.S. taxpayers, intended beneficiaries, government officials, and civil societies in recipient countries, with data and information that allows them to understand where and how assistance is used. It provides data that is critical to making informed decisions. And it keeps agencies and programs focused on their mission and objectives by permitting public scrutiny and accountability.

The Global Food Security Act of 2016, sponsored by Republicans Sen. Johnny Isakson and Rep. Chris Smith and Democrats Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Betty McCollum, writes into law the administration’s initiative Feed the Future. The core of the bill is a mandate of the president to coordinate a comprehensive U.S. global food security strategy—such a forward-looking strategy will help gain stakeholder buy-in and ultimately provide more consistent, rationale policies and programs. Also included are guidelines that we know from experience produce good development—measurable goals and performance metrics, solid monitoring and evaluation, clear criteria for selecting targets, alignment with local policies and priorities, multi-sectoral approaches, building local capacity and resilience, and partnership with the private sector. The bill authorizes funding for food security but does not earmark it—meaning the funds are authorized but are not required to be expended. And the bill calls for only a single report to Congress a year after the issuance of the strategy.

The third bill, the Electrify Africa Act of 2015, sponsored by Republicans Sen. Bob Corker and Rep. Ed Royce and Democrats Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Elliot Engel, is centered on a comprehensive energy strategy for Africa. Similarly, the legislation calls for a strategy that is flexible and responsive to local communities and for policies that promote transparent and accountable governance, local consultation, and monitoring and evaluation. The bill requires two reports, the first within six months of enactment to transmit the strategy and the second three years after enactment to report on implementation. The bill directs U.S. government agencies to use accountable and metric-based targets to measure effectiveness of assistance and to leverage private and multilateral finance.

For those who say that Congress does not support foreign assistance, let’s hope this legislative triple-hat puts that to rest. Similarly, for those who say the Congress does not understand a more effective approach to development, maybe it’s time to become a believer.

It seems, at least in the case of aid reform and support, bipartisanship and reason have won the day.