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The Challenges to Increasing Foreign Assistance September 29, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Guest BlogThis is the sixth posting in a series of guest blogs that BFAD is featuring each Tuesday.  This week features Allen Moore, Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center.

The Challenges to Increasing Foreign Assistance

by Allen Moore

When preparing a recent talk on how to sustain foreign assistance spending during a severe economic downturn, I realized that it wasn’t much different than sustaining foreign assistance in a good economy—it’s always a tough slog. But a few key factors are always present:

1.   To do anything major in foreign aid, the President must lead.

This is not new; it’s a reminder. Foreign aid spending nearly tripled during the Bush Administration because (a) he had a duty to help re-build Iraq and Afghanistan; (b) he saw the need to support anti-terrorism activity in places like Pakistan and anti-narcotics activity in places like Colombia; (c) he wanted to link more assistance to admirable governance by countries in need; and (d) he felt compelled to respond to the world’s inattentiveness to the devastation of HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa.

With foreign aid, when a President leads, the Congress will likely follow—especially if it’s controlled in whole or in part by the President’s political party. The President won’t necessarily get everything he wants, but little of consequence will occur without Presidential leadership.

If a President scales back, as Candidate Barak Obama did when he said he might have to slow down his promise to double foreign aid over four years in response to the global recession, it’s a foregone conclusion that a scale back will occur.

2.  Only a handful of members of Congress make a real difference.

This is a mixed blessing. The good news is that barely a dozen Senators and Members of Congress play key roles on foreign assistance decision making, especially spending. That means only a small number of “targets” for those who seek to change policy. The bad news is that “barely a dozen Senators and Members of Congress play key roles on foreign assistance…” If at least some of these people don’t agree with you, you will fail. Because of different rules governing the Senate and the House, senior Republican senators are included in this list of “influentials.” House counterparts are not.

The main law governing foreign aid spending has not had a major re-write for more than 25 years, notwithstanding periodic efforts to do so by Congressional leaders and presidents. What has evolved instead is a system where the annual appropriations bills for foreign assistance include huge sections of foreign aid law that must be renewed—and often modified—annually. This means “the appropriators” have displaced “the authorizers” as the main decision-makers on foreign assistance spending.

The annual spending process unfolds as follows:

  • In February, the President sends Congress his budget request for the year starting in October. It includes a detailed request for foreign assistance.
  • By April 15, the Congressional Budget Committees are supposed to agree on a “Budget Resolution” that establishes a “binding ceiling” on spending and a “binding floor” on revenues. Budget Resolutions also include assumptions for spending on programs like foreign aid that often help guide later decisions.
  • After a Budget Resolution is agreed to, the leaders of the Appropriations Committees assign specific spending authority to the 13 subcommittees that oversee all federal spending. Foreign aid is within the purview of the two Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, often referred to as “Foreign Ops.” This little understood step is very important–it caps spending for all foreign assistance, including economic support for friendly countries, poverty reduction, education of girls, global health, clean water, etc.
  • Sometime thereafter, the Foreign Ops Subcommittees recommend to the full Appropriations Committees how to divide foreign aid among the many competing interests. Increases in one area require reductions elsewhere. Their work is usually forwarded to the entire House or Senate without change.
  • Congressional leaders decide when (and sometimes if) to bring those bills to the full House and Senate. Ideally, both Houses act on the bills in early summer so that differences can be reconciled prior to September 30, the end of the fiscal year. This rarely happens anymore. It’s more common for Congress to “continue” spending authority into October or beyond until differences can be resolved.
  • The differences are worked out by the White House, Congressional leaders, and key Appropriations members. Sometimes others, especially in the Senate where individual Senators have more ability to slow things down, will force changes in a foreign aid bill. Former Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) often succeeded in stopping things that he didn’t like. He tormented both Democratic and Republican presidents on such things as America’s payment of its promised dues to the United Nations.

There are just 13 individuals on this list of “influentials” who largely control foreign aid spending: the President, the three Congressional leaders, and three leaders each from the Budget Committees, Appropriations Committees, and Appropriations Subcommittees. Just about everyone else is secondary, even though a “secondary player” may exert leverage or be the key factor to persuading an “influential.”

3.   Whenever public money is spent, the “public” must be a willing partner.

That doesn’t mean enthusiastic embrace, but at least benign acceptance. Americans turn out to be supportive, fickle, and largely ignorant about foreign aid.

On the one hand, Americans are generous. We are the largest governmental donor of aid and we dip into our personal pockets more than any other country in response to international emergencies like wars, earthquakes, and floods. We donate billions of dollars through secular and faith-based organizations. Large American foundations and corporations spend billions more on global health and other foreign aid projects.

Polls regularly show that a majority of Americans support foreign aid. When asked about priorities, 59% cite “fighting terrorism and promoting peace;” 55% cite “improving education;” 41% cite “reducing poverty;” and 38% cite “improving health.” When asked about global health, 66% want either to maintain or increase our current level of spending. But here comes the “fickle” part: 71% would not spend more in the current economy because of needs at home. Of those who would spend more, 44% are aged 18-29, a group not inclined to vote. Only 12% of those who want to spend more are seniors, the group most likely to go to the ballot box.

Then there’s the “ignorance” part: Americans have a hugely distorted view of how much is spent on foreign aid. A majority believes we spend more than 10% of the budget, and 30% of Americans believe we spend more than 20% of the budget. When asked to name the two biggest areas of government spending, 54% name defense; 45% name foreign aid. Medicare and Medicaid are named just 33% of the time, yet those two programs account for about 30% of government spending. Foreign assistance: about 1%.

This seems like an extraordinary opportunity for public education. Yet, when poll respondents are told the facts about America’s “real level” of foreign aid spending, they say that it doesn’t change their mind about spending more. Nor does it matter to them that nearly 20 countries give a larger share of their gross national income to foreign aid than we do; that several European countries give four times the U.S. rate of about 0.2%, and that most industrialized countries give at least double America’s rate. By and large, Americans think we’re spending enough.

Final thoughts…

Those who want foreign assistance spending to keep flowing and growing are wise to focus their attention on the handful of decision makers who really matter, starting with the President. But they must not ignore the misconceptions of the public.

It is also crucial to understand that facts really do matter. They persuade presidents; they reassure Congress; they influence opinion leaders; and they can inform a public that isn’t always willing to listen.

Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced its “Living Proof Project,” a new effort to identify genuine success stories in global health. The purpose is to provide tangible proof that U.S. global health assistance is not money down a rat hole.

It’s not at all clear that disbelief is the problem. It once was, when many Americans believed that their tax dollars were buying “highways to nowhere” and a new Mercedes for corrupt officials. Positive results over the years have helped to change that, not least of all in the form of President Bush’s extraordinary global AIDS initiative. But good information about success always helps. It is the cornerstone of policy making. In a world of limited resources, whatever the economic conditions, only a compelling case based on the facts has any real chance of succeeding.

Allen Moore is Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. He served more than 35 years in senior positions in the White House, U.S. Senate, Department of Commerce, and private sector. He was policy director for then Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, MD (R-TN) when President Bush’s global AIDS program, PEPFAR, was enacted into law.



1. Pat Kline - September 30, 2009

Hi Allen, What a fascinating article. I thank Kathy for sending it to us. You have certainly been at the heart of government for many years. I am thanking you for showing us that we only spend 1% on foreign aid. Much less than many other countries. Also that so few senators actually make the big decision.

Thank you for the attention to our wonderful daughter. It sure sounds like she is making great progress.

With much appreciation,
Don and Pat Kline

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