Late August, President Obama issued a request for an interagency review of all U.S. global development policy, responding to the calls from civil society and members of his own administration. He thus added the “Presidential Study Directive on Global Development Policy” to the growing list of development-related initiatives taking place inside the beltway. In July, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton launched the first-ever “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review,” to investigate how well the State Department carries out those essential pillars of foreign policy. The Senate was also busy in July, introducing a piece of legislation aiming to improve oversight, transparency, and accountability in the implementation of aid.

During September, AFJN sat at the table with staff from the House Foreign Relations Committee, alongside with more than a dozen Africa-focused progressive organizations, to share our perspective on improved foreign aid policy. Congressman Howard Berman, now the Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has said that foreign assistance reform is one of his top priorities in 2009. A House bill calling for a National Strategy for Global Development currently has over 100 bipartisan cosponsors so far. But the ongoing conversations between the committee and the NGO community is in anticipation of upcoming legislation repealing and replacing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the jumbled and outdated piece of legislation that oversees how aid is given. Such a piece of legislation is expected to be introduced by December.

Now these processes do seem like a lot to keep track of, and AFJN is concerned about the apparent lack of coordination between efforts. Yet for the first time, the widespread consensus is there: in order to do foreign policy right, the United States needs to change the way it does aid and development.

Why foreign aid reform?

Written in 1961 as part of a Cold War strategy, the Foreign Assistance Act itself has undergone little revision since then. In the meantime, however, the responsibility for its execution has been divided between 12 different departments, 25 different agencies, and almost 60 government offices (according to an Oxfam report). The authority of the under-staffed and under-funded US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its capacity to carry out effective development programs has eroded, especially as funding and program authority is co-opted away from genuine poverty-reduction for political/strategically-motivated purposes.

Furthermore, the impact of each aid dollar spent is limited by ineffective or absent oversight and accountability and provisions that “tie” the aid to American businesses. The “buy America” provision means that 71 cents of each of those dollars is funneled back to US goods and services instead of going into the hands of local industries, producers, or organizations. And the measurement of success of development programs is rarely based on real improvement in the lives of the people in the countries receiving aid.

While most policymakers and government officials working on the issue share those criticisms of the current system, AFJN believes that it is too early to tell whether or not the consensus is the beginning of a new face of American foreign policy toward Africa. USAID still remains without a director, and in the meantime, the Obama administration continues to employ AFRICOM in the war on terrorism and engage with oftentimes repressive or undemocratic militias. AFJN celebrates the widespread calls for elevating “development” within foreign policy and hopes to see it counteract what has been a trend of an increasingly militarized foreign policy and the politicized use of aid.

Through our AFRICOM focus campaign, AFJN has kept a watchful eye on the way a shortsighted, military approach to security on the African continent has tended to contribute to unrest, violence against African civilians, and non-democratic power structures. Yet the militarization of aid has been a part of the aid bureaucratic jumbling process over the years – the Department of Defense currently controls approximately 18% of all “Official Development Assistance.” Designed to protect in the most immediate way possible the security of the American people, the Military is a far cry from the institutional structure needed to effectively fight poverty abroad. Furthermore, US foreign aid directed towards regimes with poor human rights records for geopolitical reasons (both Nigeria and Ethiopia are on the list of top 10 recipients of US aid) is diverted from meaningful poverty-reduction efforts and does little for the African people or for perceptions of legitimacy.

The efforts to reinvigorate our capacity for development and diplomacy occurs at the same time as the “increased attention” on Africa and its newfound “central role” in US foreign policy, a message the administration hoped to deliver through President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s respective visits to the continent. Yet, many groups are concerned that the behavior of the administration so far, including Clinton’s choice of countries to visit, for example, reflects the primacy of anti-terrorism, access to resources, and other geopolitical interests in US considerations toward the continent.

In light of these increased strategic interests in Africa, it is more essential than ever that the foreign aid reform process divorce the practice of development from American geopolitical interests. It is essential that policy-makers continue to recognize that poverty-reduction and efforts to meet basic human needs across the globe are themselves essential components in eliminating the underlying causes of insecurity, as the myriad of development-reform related activities have demonstrated. But it is equally essential that they recognize that if American political and security interests continue to dictate the disbursement and implementation of US aid, the meaningful impact of those programs will continue to be undermined.

In short, aid to Africa needs to be about the African people, about giving them the space and means to set up good government structures and healthy, prosperous societies. AFJN hopes that such a principle will guide the reform.

Originally published in the Sept/Oct edition of Around Africa
By Allison Burket