Restructuring the U.S. Foreign Assistance Program

Craig Lasher is a Senior Policy Analyst at Population Action International (PAI).

As a veteran foreign aid advocate, I was keenly interested when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced in January a major restructuring of the U.S. government's foreign assistance program under a new vision of "transformational diplomacy." Its lofty goal was described as "helping to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system." As the details of the new strategic framework for foreign aid begin to emerge, however, my cynical concern that short-term national security and democracy promotion objectives favored by the State Department would trump the traditional focus of U.S. foreign assistance on development and poverty reduction appears to be on its way to being confirmed. Such a shift could prove enormously detrimental to long-term development programs, including family planning and reproductive health.

Despite assurance that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would remain independent, preliminary assessments of the internal bureaucratic wrangling suggest that the State Department is usurping USAID's traditional role in setting foreign aid program priorities and in allocating funding. In the past, USAID's independence has served to at least partly insulate aid decision-making from the transient political and diplomatic crises of the moment. The restructuring process has also proven-so far-to be centralized, Washington-driven, and top-down with limited involvement by mission and embassy staff on the ground with expertise and insight on country needs.

One of the State Department's stated goals of its foreign assistance restructuring plans is to provide maximum flexibility to the executive branch and to eliminate the practice of earmarking funds for programs favored by their congressional champions. A line-item budget from Congress for family planning has been essential to the political survival of the USAID family planning program since its founding over 40 years ago. Threats to the continuing existence of this critical public health program continue today, best evidenced by the $79 million funding cut proposed by the President in his FY 2007 budget request in February.

As anyone who has worked on foreign aid bills for as long as I have knows, the practice of congressional earmarking has evolved over time and exists because of the executive branch's historic resistance-regardless of who is President-to taking direction from Congress on the priorities within U.S. foreign aid budget and the reluctance of Congress to give the President a free hand in dispensing funds overseas.

In June, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee issued what appears to me to be an unmistakable preemptive warning that the State Department's plans to reject funding directives from Congress may face difficulties in winning approval by explicitly earmarking all funding for global health and other development programs by country and program activity in its version of the FY 2007 appropriations bill (H.R. 5522).

Largely sidelined until now, Congress must insist on being involved in the process. It must exercise oversight and leadership in resisting foreign assistance restructuring proposals that may endanger successful foreign aid programs in the pursuit of a notion of greater coherence and coordination. Ultimately, the institutional interests of the two branches of our government will collide when the President sends his FY 2008 budget request to Congress next February-perhaps even sooner. I will bet money on it.

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