There are two things we know for sure in Washington these days: First, the incoming Obama administration is likely to bring change on a wide variety of topics; and second, U.S. foreign assistance is in dire need of a change. You are probably already aware of the plethora of policy papers on how the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State should be reorganized to increase their effectiveness. There are also multiple initiatives striving to boost the prominence of neglected issues like water. What is lacking is an integrated strategy addressing both our domestic and international goals that would in turn suggest organizational reforms for the federal government.
As you read this, the Obama transition team is planning how to tackle major international challenges, including the financial crisis, energy supply, climate change, food security, global health threats, institution-building and governance, and global poverty. International development, as part of an integrated strategic plan, is an important part of the solution to all of these issues. Unfortunately, the current system is dysfunctional. Existing development capacities are spread throughout the executive branch—across 12 government departments, 25 government agencies, and almost 60 government offices—and, in some cases, are outsourced to the private sector. No one person or office is charged with priority-setting, planning, budgeting, implementation, or evaluation.
Wilson Center Senior Scholar John Sewell and I spent this past spring meeting with a group of experts with a wide range of expertise to develop a memo that sets out how such a strategy should be developed and implemented. In A Memo to the Next President: Promoting American Interests Through Smarter, More Strategic Global Policies, we recommend the appointment of a high-level individual on the president’s staff to develop, implement, and monitor—in consultation with key members of Congress—a government-wide strategy to promote U.S. interests abroad. At some point, larger organizational questions will need to be addressed, but the first step toward effectively tackling these challenges is creating an overall strategy to meet the country’s goals and priorities.
Clearly, the sort of integrated planning we are recommending has great relevance for many of the topics discussed here on the New Security Beat. Whether we are talking about climate change as a national security threat or the relationship between conservation efforts and population, there is a need for a broader understanding of how these issues—and their potential solutions—affect one another. With dramatic changes in the White House and Congress and with a broad consensus that U.S. foreign policy efforts are insufficient, the time is ripe for an overhaul in our strategies.
To read more about reforming U.S. foreign assistance, check out these blogs: