Ideas to Action:

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US Development Policy


Representative Howard Berman released draft legislation, the Global Partnerships Act, that would rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  As noted here earlier, the FAA has not been re-authorized by Congress since 1985.  Berman, previously as chairman and currently as ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, directed his staff to craft a bill that updated U.S. foreign assistance laws to reflect a world with new threats and plenty of new actors.  In doing so, his staff recognized the need to create opportunities for grand bargains.

Grand bargains are hard to achieve, but they can, by definition, offer benefits for both sides.  Yes, it involves compromise - something in short supply these days - but a grand bargain implies more than just compromise. It promises a tangible benefit in exchange for relinquishing an asset.  You give me a good enough price, and I’ll give up some hard-earned cash.  Of course, the price I want to pay may be too low, and that’s where the compromise comes in.  You get a little less than you want, and I pay a little more than I had planned.  To reach a grand bargain means that policymakers in the administration and Congress, as well as in the aid community, need to consider the costs and payoffs before agreeing to start the bargaining process.

So here’s my tally sheet on the potential bargains offered either in the Global Partnerships Act, or via the process of a debate on a new foreign assistance act, and the possible consequences of not acting.

Congress and the Administration.  Congress complains that administrations act without consulting Congress.  Administrations complain that Congress micro-manages everything they do via earmarks, reporting requirements, notifications, and holds (so better to keep the legislative branch as uninformed as feasibly possible).

  • The potential bargain – Congress stops micro-managing in exchange for better consultation.  The administration gets more flexibility in exchange for a little more legislative legwork.
  • The consequences of no bargain – Congress passes more burdensome conditions that make it virtually impossible for aid to be managed effectively; funding gets gutted for lack of results.

Internationalists and America First-ers.  It is a myth that Democrats like aid and Republicans do not, or that Democrats have less trust in the military than Republicans.  Some of the largest increases in aid history have come under a Republican White House working with both Ds and Rs in Congress, and military engagement has occurred with regular frequency regardless of administrations.  The better framework is one of Internationalists and America First-ers, and we find each in both parties.

  • The potential bargain – Internationalists, some of whom have never met an international program they didn’t like, agree to a better prioritized set of U.S. objectives in exchange for buy-in on the value of U.S. non-military engagement among American First-ers, some of whom have never met an international program they could support.
  • The consequence of no bargain – Foreign aid continues to be the punching bag of budget cutters even though it represents roughly 1% of the budget.  Partisans continue to fight over funding levels rather than the more important issues of agreeing on objectives and strategies.

Congress, Government Agencies, and Implementing Partners.  As I have bemoaned elsewhere, implementing partners have developed a penchant for lobbying Congress for earmarks and directives that support their work.  These carve-outs make it very difficult to design evidence-based and country-owned strategies.

  • The potential bargain – Aid groups stop lobbying based on sector, project, or country. In exchange, the greater flexibility given to government agencies allows for a better and more predictable allocation of resources.
  • The consequences of no bargain – Authorizing and appropriations bills become so littered with directives that, in periods of budget austerity, groups resort to hand-to-hand combat over funds.  Turning the Capitol into the Roman Coliseum is just not a good idea.

The Body Politic and the American Public.  It is an article of faith that the American people do not support foreign aid.  My colleague, Charles Kenny, questions the validity of these surveys.  My own opinion is that survey respondents answer the question of whether they support aid (implicitly or explicitly) in relation to domestic programs (think food stamps, student loans).  But when queried about support for tackling global issues – HIV/AIDS, hunger – the American public gets it. What they fear is that not enough due diligence is being done with regard to whom we give aid, its effectiveness, and the potential for wasting money on ill-designed programs.

  • The potential bargain – The government does better evaluations and evidenced-based programming around a set of agreed-upon objectives in exchange for recognition among the public that this component of U.S. global engagement is needed and works.
  • The consequence of no bargain – Aid funding continues to be under attack until all that’s left is military assistance or the Department of Defense in charge of development.

In the end, I find more good reasons than bad to begin deliberations on a new legislative framework for foreign assistance.  A small group of congressmen and most of the aid community are ready.  That leaves the rest of Congress and the current administration to consider the costs and payoffs of acting versus not acting.  Unfortunately, to date, the White House and State Department have shown no interest, and without high level participation, this may end up being another squandered opportunity to advance U.S. interests and make aid more effective.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.