The U.S. Needs a Department of Development

Posted by Michael Kleinman

Foreign assistance isn't only a moral gesture, it's also essential to our national security.

The United States spends more than $20 billion a year in foreign assistance, yet it's an open question what we're receiving in return. In the words of the official Help Commission Report on Foreign Assistance Reform, "Our foreign assistance system is broken."The answer is to establish a new Department of Development. Only a cabinet-level agency has the clout to coordinate U.S. foreign assistance funding across and throughout the Government, while also ensuring that our development spending takes a suitably long-term, strategic approach.The case for reform comes down to the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure-foreign assistance isn't only a moral gesture, but also essential to our national security. Providing assistance to keep countries from becoming failed states makes much more sense than trying to deal with them afterward. Especially as failed states provide the perfect environment in which terror threats can metastasize.The problem, however, is that we're not very good at this kind of prevention. Our foreign assistance spending is chaotic and uncoordinated, which makes the development and implementation of a coherent strategy almost impossible.The U.S. Agency for International Development is meant to be the lead agency within the government for distributing and coordinating foreign aid. Yet between 1998 and 2006, USAID's share of total government spending on development fell from 64.3 percent to 45 percent. Overall, a total of 28 different U.S. government departments and agencies provided overseas aid in 2006. It's as though a room full of doctors are arguing as the patient dies.At the same time, more and more foreign assistance is being channeled through the Department of Defense, which presents an entirely new set of difficulties.In Iraq, I remember walking through a small village that had recently been devastated by a truck bomb. The force of the explosion had leveled houses and the local school, leaving a rough circle of rubble and little else. As we surveyed the damage, the lieutenant in charge of the Civil Affairs Team responsible for the area pointed out all the projects that he'd like to do, all the buildings he'd like to rebuild.Yet while soldiers are trained to do many things, overseeing third-world development projects is not one of them. The Lieutenant had the money he'd need to hire local contractors to construct a school, or dig a well. It was far more complicated, however, to ensure that these projects were sustainable. Wells that run dry and schools that sit empty for lack of teachers don't do much good.USAID, however, cannot provide much support. Due to Congressional and Administrative indifference stretching back decades, USAID has become a shell of its former self-there are now half the number of USAID staff as there were in the early 1980s.During his second term, President Bush tried to improve overall coordination by integrating USAID more closely with the State Department, mandating that the USAID Administrator also simultaneously fill the role of Director of Foreign Assistance at the State Department.This however, is exactly the wrong approach. First, these reforms do nothing to address the fragmented nature of U.S. foreign aid. The combined position of USAID Administrator and Director of Foreign Assistance still controls only 55 percent of all U.S. foreign assistance. Second, and even more problematic, these reforms ensure that U.S. development spending is subordinated to the short-term political and diplomatic concerns of the State Department.Yet foreign assistance is most effective when it takes a long-term approach, prioritizing pro-poor development policies. The current reforms instead give us the opposite, which further undermines our ability to help stabilize failing countries.National security is often described in terms of the three D's-diplomacy, defense and development. There's a Department of State and a Department of Defense, yet there's no Department of Development. And then we wonder why our development policies are so ineffective.