Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Foreign Aid II: USAID, Development Trends, and the Presidential Campaign

by Isobel Coleman
April 6, 2012


Foreign assistance is a perennial political football, especially when the United States faces economic woes at home. This year’s presidential campaign is no exception. At one extreme is Republican candidate Ron Paul, who has said simply, “I’m against all foreign aid.” Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has been more nuanced, saying in his campaign’s foreign policy white paper that U.S. foreign assistance efforts are largely squandered by a “balkanized scheme” of Washington bureaucracy. He suggests streamlining agencies and reporting lines to improve planning and implementation. In a debate last October, Romney appeared to endorse foreign aid connected to U.S. strategic objectives while questioning humanitarian assistance. “I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” he said.

But the U.S. foreign assistance landscape will probably experience significant continuity no matter who wins the White House in November. This is because, first, there’s a broad consensus among policymakers that foreign assistance is an important component of U.S. soft power, and that it can advance strategic priorities. But beyond that, four major trends are already ongoing in the U.S. aid apparatus, led by USAID, and these are likely to endure. In a video on, I discuss these trends and the broader foreign assistance issues that will face the next president:

The trends I identify are as follows:

  1. A continuing shift of foreign aid resources from relatively well-off countries to poorer ones. Large expenditures in certain countries are a legacy of Cold War strategic considerations, and many of these countries have reached middle-income status. USAID is rightfully recognizing the need to redirect attention to the least-developed states.
  2. A move away from the last decade’s emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan. As I wrote on the blog last month, USAID has spent $7.7 billion in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003 and $15.2 billion in Afghanistan between fiscal years 2002 and 2011. As these wars wind down, so too will U.S. assistance.
  3. More emphasis on collaboration with both the private sector and other official development organizations. This is a necessary step. Though USAID and the United States more broadly remain dominant players in the development sphere, that sphere is growing increasingly crowded. Official development assistance is only a fraction of overall economic flows to the developing world, as I discussed on the blog yesterday, and emerging countries are becoming more important donors themselves. It is heartening to see USAID, the State Department, and others recognize the importance of partnerships to bring a full range of resources to bear on development challenges.
  4. Efforts to develop and retain more in-house expertise at USAID. The agency, which has implemented many of its programs through private contractors in recent years, is working to restore its capacity and thought leadership in such areas as accountability, transparency, and monitoring and evaluation. This is essential in order to stay at the cutting edge of development effectiveness. USAID administrator Rajiv Shah discussed many of these efforts at the recent John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture at CFR.

These four trends are largely positive and, in some cases, long overdue. They are also important to U.S. hopes to remain a central player in global development debates. Let me know what you think about the foreign assistance issues that the next president will confront. And please check the blog next week for my post about the growing role and ambitions of the BRICS as foreign aid donors.

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