Reforming U.S. Foreign Aid

December 10, 2007

On December 10, Brookings hosted the Helping to Enhance the Livelihood of People around the Globe (HELP) Commission for their release of “Beyond Assistance,” the commission’s recommendations for foreign aid reform.  Brookings Vice President Lael Brainard examines critical points in the report and discusses next steps for the reform effort.

Read the HELP Commission report “Beyond Assistance” » (PDF)
Read more about foreign assistance reform »


“We ran a task force called Transforming Foreign Assistance for the 21st Century, which I think agrees with many of the conclusions of the HELP report. In particular, we have a system that was created in the 1960s and that is not ready for 21st century challenges.

“Right now, the United States is trying to do 50 different things, literally 50 different goals with 50 different operating entities most of which are not reporting to each other or even coordinated with each other. So we’re pursuing too many goals with too many offices and that situation has become greatly exacerbated over the last few years as foreign assistance spending has increased the number of independent entities and ad hoc entities have increased. Instead of 50 objectives we probably need five: reducing poverty; supporting capable states that are responsive to the needs of their people; countering humanitarian, trans-national and security threats. Instead of 50 entities, we probably should have one operationally capable cabinet agency.

“The HELP Commission comes out, I think, in exactly the right place on areas such as the critical importance of local ownership of development strategies and plans. At the end of the day, American foreign assistance is going to be most effective when it supports the strategies and the plans of the citizens of the countries that we are trying to help.

“I’m glad that the commission put structure as a piece of the puzzle. I think we need to align capabilities, resources and structure against the mission. They split on that area and they clearly did not come to a very strong conclusion.

“The Brookings CSIS bipartisan task force on Transforming Foreign Assistance for the 21st Century looked at the issue of aligning structure, capabilities and resources against mission and ultimately concluded that it’s very important to create a cabinet level, independent agency for development and until we do that we will not be using our foreign assistance dollars for maximum impact.

“One of the most important challenges for the new President will be to put a new face on America’s engagement with the world. We are somewhat constrained on doing that with some of our soft power instruments. Trade is politically divisive. Immigration is very politically divisive. The one area where I think there is strong bipartisan consensus right now is on the areas of foreign assistance to address 21st century challenges. Those include things like terrorism; they include pandemics; they include HIV/AIDS; and very importantly, global poverty.

“Already we’re starting to see congressional leadership on the Hill take up this critical question of reforming, modernizing, revitalizing our foreign assistance structures and capabilities. And going forward a new President is going to have to work hand-in-hand with congressional champions to make sure that America is using its soft-power to maximum impact.”