Monday, April 12, 2010

Will Foreign Aid Reform Help Africa?

In September 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Foreign Assistance Act, which established the U.S. Agency for International Development and set the framework for American foreign aid globally. Since its creation, the foundation of America’s foreign assistance has articulated 140 goals and 400 specific directives based on its precepts, but no clear or coordinated methods for their implementation. As a result, it has been acknowledged that aid to Africa has had little success, and in fact, Africa has fallen behind in its development when compared to its status in the 1960s.

An effort is underway in Congress, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman and his staff, to revise the nation’s mechanism for delivering foreign aid such that it sets clear and achievable goals, designs a delivery process that makes sense and produces measurable results. To achieve this worthy ambition, I would suggest the following for African assistance.

Poverty in Africa is the cancer that eats away at progress in all areas. Poor voters find that a bag of meal to feed a hungry family outweighs a vote for a government they never see in a system they can’t follow. Bureaucracies fail when workers must use time at which they are expected to be at their jobs in search of pay their regular jobs don’t provide or other needs that cannot be met after work hours. Democracy and governance cannot thrive in the face of persistent, widespread poverty.

Police and military officials, who also are husbands and fathers, resort to bribery when their pay is insufficient or non-existent. Crime seems a more efficient means of earning a living for anyone when jobs are scarce and becomes easier to accept when one starts small. Conflict over dwindling resources is at its root based on poverty, even when it appears to be ethnic or religious in nature. Rule of law is not possible when people cannot meet the needs of their families by working within the established order.

Professionals – be they scientists, health care workers or college professors – will not remain in a failing system if earning a living becomes so difficult it prevents one from practicing one’s hard-earned craft effectively. Consequently, professionals have been pouring out of African countries at an alarming rate, creating a brain drain that only further retards development. This vicious cycle defies efforts to jump-start African development and must be addressed if any foreign aid can achieve even modest goals.

To make U.S. foreign aid to Africa finally work, the U.S. government must work with and not on behalf of African governments in designing development programs that will work, taking into account the regional impact of what is designed. We cannot expect African governments to feel beholden to a plan they had no part in creating. Help is only valuable if it meets the real need as perceived by those requiring help. Moreover, the development plans must use the Millennium Challenge Account model of creating an ongoing public-private partnership among African governments, business sectors and civil societies to ensure broad cooperation and accountability.

Direct funding of projects through implementing organizations would help bypass bureaucracies that might slow down or frustrate the effectiveness of development programs because of officials who either don’t understand the goals or who want to siphon off easy money. The African Diaspora, whether the recent one having left Africa on their own or the historic one taken involuntarily centuries ago, must be engaged in the effort to rebuild African societies.

Actually, most African countries don’t even fully utilize the skills and experiences of women and young people who remain within their borders. No society can maximize its success if its female and youth populations are not fully integrated into the decision-making process. How much innovation would we see in America, Europe and elsewhere in the developed world if our women and young people were ignored or unable to contribute to the greater society?

In our future efforts to deliver timely, effective foreign aid that meets our intention to do good for Africans, we must adhere to five principles: 1) consultation with Africa and its people must be at the heart of whatever we try to do to make development aid applicable to the true situation at hand; 2) wealth creation will build strong and enduring societies that can resist corruption, avoid conflict and overcome unexpected crises; 3) public-private partnerships that meaningfully include women and youth are critical to achieving sustainable success that benefits all of society, while maintaining transparency; 4) very little, if anything, that enhances development in one African country will not affect development efforts in neighboring countries, so regional strategies for development are not only wise, but also unavoidable, and 5) the African Diaspora is a powerful tool for reversing the negative impact of Africa’s brain drain and leveraging citizen-driven foreign aid efforts that will multiply the impact of any government foreign assistance.

The current effort to revise and streamline America’s foreign assistance process is laudable. Chairman Berman seems steadfast in his determination to make meaningful, positive change in our currently complex foreign assistance formula; Africa Subcommittee Chairman Donald Payne and Ranking Member Chris Smith have demonstrated their commitment to African development. We must hope that all means of achieving our country’s goals will be on the table and fully explored before final decisions on aid mechanisms are approved. To achieve this, those of us who care about Africa and its people must present our best case to those considering changes to the Foreign Assistance Act. Complaining later when we’ve done nothing in the present is a waste of everyone’s time.

But let us recall that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. If we are to avoid continued failure for the sake of Africa and its people, we must make the most of the opportunity before us.

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