13 April 2011

The New Old Politics of US Aid

I just returned from a quick trip to the US where the debate about the shape of the FY 2010-11 budget is in full swing, despite being 6 months into the financial year.

Fuelled by 50 or so Tea Party members of the House of Representatives, which the Republicans now control, the budget will be cut by $38.5 billion, the biggest ever annual cut. It looks like the USAID budget (about $24 billion) might take a 30% cut. Now the QDDR, the recent review of US development and diplomacy, is not only about money, but the budget cuts will likely make aid reform more difficult, not less.

Given that US citizens make over $40 billion in private contributions to US aid organizations, why is the US government, and particularly Congress, so resistant to aid spending? Much of the resistance is down to long running challenges.

First, bad messaging is certainly one contributor: US aid spending is only about 0.25% of gross national income—well down the DAC league tables, and aid spending is less than 1% of the budget despite a sizable chunk of the US citizenry (and some congressional members) thinking the number is around 20%.

Second, the military superpower stance of the US is also a problem for aid, because non-humanitarian aid gets drawn into the security frame. So for aid to be justified to a large segment of the right it has to contribute to the security mission. If one can make the case that aid prevents conflict and maintains (pro-development) stability, this might not be so restrictive, but then again if a country is pro-development, it will likely be less prone to such conflict.

Third, some parts of the aid spend have a harder time connecting on a human level. Global health is easier to sell to the US public than is hunger reduction—perhaps because of the relatively high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.

But most importantly, USAID is increasingly caught up in an ideological backlash against the deficit generation of the Bush years. The belief that small government is good government obviously holds sway at the moment in the House of Representatives.

When the cuts come, it would be nice to think they will be driven by evidence of what works and what does not. But the new evaluation policy of USAID (which the World Bank is using as a basis for its own emergent policy) has only been in place for a few months, and there are precious few extant evaluations of USAID investments to guide decisions.

And where is the President Obama in all this? Absent, according to some key development thinkers in the US. The President needs to be on the front foot in this debate, making the case for foreign aid. The fact that he is not reflects an emerging style of letting Congress battle things out before a Presidential swoop, but, ironically, it is also one indication of the small size of the aid budget--a budget line item that is only going to get less and less important in the run up to next year’s election.

1 comment:

David Rieff said...

Dear Lawrence,
Interesting post. But in all candor, I think you reflect a bit of the denial commonplace on the pro-aid side in the US. Yes, framing/messaging are important, and so is the security frame. But actually, the messaging hasn't been that bad, nor has the lobbying. And, as you say, the vast amount of private giving shows how many Americans are sympathetic to development aid. In my view, though, unless and until those trying to promote support for development aid in the US admit its limitations and failures, Republicans will be likely to carry the argument. Look at Egypt. For thirty years, USAID trumpeted its successes (they may even be up on its website). And yet for the Egyptian poor, things did not get better. The QDDR is noteworthy for failing to admit US development did anything wrong except fail to coordinate and fail to attach more importance to development. There is no mention of policy mistakes on AID's part (support for export-based economies; implicit reliance for more than a decade on the Washington consensus, etc.). It is a well-intended but culpably complacent document, as, I fear, is the argument, so prevalent in liberal Washington these days, that it's all the fault of the wicked Republicans, and, oh yes, some bad messaging.
Best, as always,