Yesterday at Carol Lancaster's launch of her new book on Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development and Domestic Politics a somewhat confusing exchange took place between Carol and Andrew Natsios, the "commentator" (in quotes because much of what Andrew had to say was pure Andrew) prompted by moderator Sebastian Mallaby's question: "So where do the two of you think levels of U.S. foreign assistance are going in the future?" The answer, if somewhat nuanced, that both gave was "up in trend but lots of noise around the trend" (my paraphrase).
This was interesting because Carol, in her summary of the book's main messages, made the point that the shortcomings in U.S. foreign assistance were due to the structure of the U.S.'s system of government, particularly the checks and balances inherent in a presidential-congressional system. Andrew agreed and added to the list the rise in recent times of a myriad of special interest groups in place of a formerly strong two party system. To this non-expert in the U.S. political system, their conclusions ring true. Carol argued, and Andrew agreed, that the U.S. system of government undermined the process of constituency building for development assistance and led to paralysis-by-earmarking even when appropriations are forthcoming.
So, why did both Carol and Andrew lean toward projecting an increase in U.S. development assistance over the medium term? Wishful thinking? I doubt it. Both are far too experienced and politically savvy for that. Carol and, I think, Andrew as well, felt that there was a growing recognition among the U.S. electorate that development assistance was in its own interest. While I am willing to accept that proposition, although with a large dose of skepticism, what I am not willing to accept is that this money will be well spent. Put differently, is "Whither U.S. assistance levels?" the right question
USAID and the broader U.S. development assistance system are suffering the equivalent of death by a thousand earmarks. What has changed in the U.S. system of government that will avoid this in the future? If I read her correctly, Carol thinks very little, as she worries about whether the one attempt to get out of this trap, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, will survive current budget discussions. My sense from hearing Carol and Andrew many times is that both have doubts about the ability of current reform efforts to solve or even limit the congressional micromanagement problem, which is consistent with the analysis in Carol's book. But unless the broader structural problem gets solved, it seems to me that whether the U.S. doubles or halves development assistance may be of little import to developing countries.
I left the discussion admiring Carol's work but deeply depressed about the future of U.S. development assistance. If the problem is as structurally deep-seated as Carol's analysis suggests, the prospect for real foreign assistance reform would seem to be somewhere between small and none.