When we’re told that U.S. attempts at development in the global south do not work, we respond, ‘it’s because true development has never been tried.’ For decades the U.S. has shipped money and supplies overseas only to see the levels of poverty and devastation remain largely the same. Between 1965 and 2006, USAID spent $516 billion in Africa, with few measurable returns. What will it take to procure smarter investment and attention to the needs of the world’s poorest, particularly those in Africa? What must happen in the next Administration to ensure that we are a responsible global leader – one that cares as much about the needs of the developing world as it does about maintaining a prosperous American economy?

It is time that the Executive Branch and the U.S. Congress do a major overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA). The FAA, initiated in 1961 by President Kennedy, was created in reaction to the inefficient and piecemeal fashion under which international aid and development initiatives were being conducted. Unfortunately, the Act has not had a serious revision since its creation over 40 years ago. Congressman Howard Berman, now the Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has said that foreign assistance reform will be one of his top priorities in 2009.

In conducting such reform, Congressman Berman should ensure that Congress has adequate oversight of all Executive agencies engaged in development work and should consider strictly moderating the capability of the Pentagon to acquire funds for certain international programs. Many of the governance requirements that exist under the FAA in terms of which developing countries receive U.S. development or military dollars have not been transferred to the Department of Defense (DOD) as they engage in training foreign militaries and providing humanitarian assistance.

Shockingly, under the current system, the DOD controls approximately 18 percent of all development assistance, among dozens of other branches and agencies who are also charged with distributing U.S. foreign aid. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that USAID controls only 45 percent of U.S. aid abroad. This means that the long term foreign assistance goals necessary for true development are easily compromised by the short term national and security interests of the Executive. As such, in recent years, the President has sought to include development in military activities in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of countries in Africa. Though this is meant as a way of winning ‘hearts and minds’ and boosting America’s image around the world, it allows U.S. soldiers to act in a capacity that is above and beyond their call of duty. As many legislators have noted at hearings on AFRICOM, the Pentagon should stick to what it knows best.

U.S. priorities since 9/11 have centered on the ‘defense’ pillar of the “3D strategy” (diplomacy, development, defense). As we have seen, our military’s free reign over the U.S. budget has resulted in a very negative image of America abroad. Thus, not only does the U.S. need a stronger, more equitable, and more responsible State Department, it also needs a Department of Foreign Development Assistance that can focus on the needs of the African people over the interests of the United States.

A new administration will provide an opportunity to re-shuffle the deck chairs and as a result, advance an aid strategy that works for the developing world. It should serve as a complement to a stronger emphasis on diplomacy above defense, ending the scattered approach to development that exists today.

This idea is not new in Washington – several progressive think-tanks and large NGO’s have signed on to a statement entitled “New Day, New Way: Foreign Assistance for the 21st Century.” In it, the authors suggest that “U.S. global leadership is based not only on our military clout or economic power, but on our moral stature, which derives from helping others improve their lives and those of their communities and societies.” (p. 2 of the Coalition Report) They go on to prescribe a new Cabinet-level department as one of the priorities for modernizing foreign assistance.

AFJN would like to reinforce the notion that as a whole, the U.S. must be willing to spend more time and resources on responsible development. Too often, the U.S. government is focused on what the American economy can gain from giving foreign aid, not how to advance the common good. We must untie our own economy from the resources we invest in the developing world and insist that aid be spent more efficiently and effectively. In the long run, true development – development that focuses on people, not governments, communities not corporations, and the common good not the U.S. economy – will provide a more secure, more prosperous world for all.

The bottom line is that a new administration must invest more staff, time, and resources in creating an effective civilian development corps that has the capacity and understanding to address the problems and the priorities of the global south. Currently, the U.S. invests approximately .18 percent of its gross national income (GNI) in foreign aid, one of the lowest rates in the developed world. By comparison, Great Britain contributes over .5 percent and Sweden over 1 percent. Not only do these countries contribute more in raw money, their funds are also viewed as more benevolent and untied by those in the developing world. No matter who wins the election in November, it is in the global best interest to enhance, reform, and restructure U.S. foreign assistance.

By Beth Tuckey