US development assistance under challenge

Post 2017 Brookings Blum Roundtable

2017 Brookings-Blum Roundtable

At the 2017 Brookings Blum Roundtable, held at the Aspen Institute, a group of development and foreign affairs experts examined the challenges facing U.S. development assistance. These challenges relate to rapidly shifting politics around the world, changing budgetary priorities in the U.S., proposals for structural reform of government institutions to improve effectiveness, growing concern over the future of fragile states, and the evolving role of multilateral institutions.

The roundtable brought together bipartisan experience and perspectives from leaders in government, academia, think tanks, international organizations, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations. Many are currently engaged in shaping how the U.S. can best respond to new geopolitical realities to achieve better development results, namely, improving the lives of people across the world and avoiding unpleasant consequences that can arise when development cooperation is absent. 

Several common themes emerged from the discussions: (1) Public opinion of aid effectiveness is often polarized, viewed as strictly successful or unsuccessful; therefore, more specificity is needed about where aid has been effective and where it has not. (2) Disaggregated evidence on aid effectiveness to understand how development cooperation works best in fragile states, in selected sectors, and through specific instruments is vital to success. (3) Greater clarity is required regarding what can be changed to improve results—many experts feel that a focus on processes such as procurement and human resource management could yield medium-term gains.

In each case, aid is increasingly catalytic, servant to (and far smaller than) a country’s own resources. Applying agreed-upon principles of aid effectiveness, including country ownership, remains important, but there are practical difficulties in implementation when coordinating with military or humanitarian planning.

Participants voiced the need to be bold, to focus on implementation, to develop new partnerships, and to leverage public efforts along with business. As such, aid should be a complement to and catalyst for private investment, not a substitute. Yet partnerships do not offer a cure-all. Blending of funds and trilateral partnerships between aid, business, and civil society are promising, but not in all cases. Sometimes each form of development cooperation works best by itself.

At the same time, experts repeatedly called for local government engagement and ownership in the countries where the U.S. provides aid as a way to improve effectiveness, build government capacity, and to establish relationships with people on the ground. As one participant said, aid works not because of its design, but in spite of it.

The American values embodied in aid (including human rights, democracy, and good governance) still resonate with the public.

Sustaining aid support will require new messages and new messengers, including students, universities, businesses, and military leaders. A message of national interest might help raise aid volumes, but the effectiveness of spending depends on principles and values. The American values embodied in aid (including human rights, democracy, and good governance) still resonate with the public. Their attitudes toward aid are not the problem, but nor are they the solution. The hard realities of budget arithmetic imply that Congress will be key in setting funding priorities. Creating a more highly leveraged U.S. development finance corporation is perhaps the only option for increasing dollar volumes of cooperation support.

One underexplored but potentially effective message is to frame development cooperation as an exit strategy to help countries become more self-sustaining. As an exercise in social media messaging, other ideas were more crisply summarized as #cheapandeasy (engaging with American Universities abroad); #womenandgirls; #everyonematters; #itsboththatmatterstupid (both values and national interest); #peaceispossible.

Participants agreed, and in some cases committed, to using the roundtable findings to inform their discussions with administration and congressional leaders on:

  • Aid redesign—multiple proposals are on the table, and leaders need to unify around a single proposal.
  • Creation of a development finance corporation with equity, first loss, guarantee, and technical assistance/grant instrumentalities that can be agile, innovative, and technologically cutting-edge and that could retain a share of profits to self-finance expansion—a big push is needed.
  • Draft legislation on violence reduction and the root causes of corruption.
  • Draft legislation calling for a new strategy on state fragility.
  • Draft legislation on a review of multilateral institutions.
  • New approaches toward cooperation with Chinese banks and development agencies.
  • Advocacy around aid budget numbers, especially in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Participants also agreed that further research would be useful on:

The cost effectiveness of aid—compared to, for example, the $34 million required to identify, track, target, and kill a terrorist leader.

  • The link between U.S. reform and multilateral reform.
  • A multilateral aid review from a U.S. perspective—benchmarking international organizations.
  • An operational plan for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Voluntary reviews at the high level political forum for fragile states.

The conversation also identified desirable but probably unattainable reforms including a cabinet-level position overseeing all aid and efficiency gains (cost savings) from agency consolidation.

The consensus was that now is the time to act, as the Trump administration is proposing to cut the foreign assistance budget and dramatically reforming government institutions. There are opportunities to influence the administration toward positive rather than harmful changes.

Download the full report.