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U.S. Foreign Aid Increasingly Incoherent, Ad Hoc, Charge NGOs
Published on Monday, November 3, 2003 by
U.S. Foreign Aid Increasingly Incoherent, Ad Hoc, Charge NGOs
by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON -- U.S. foreign aid under the administration of President George W. Bush is becoming increasingly incoherent, according to a coalition representing more than 160 non-governmental development and humanitarian organizations (NGOs) that are calling for a "full-scale review" of U.S. assistance for poor countries.

In a 15-page policy paper released Friday, InterAction, a coalition of virtually all major private U.S. aid groups, charged that aid programs are increasingly fragmented among a growing number of new and existing U.S. agencies, creating new layers of bureaucracy that defy coordination. The result, according to the groups, is that aid activities in the field are "scattershot," in some cases leading to as many as five different agencies in the field working on the same problem, sometimes without the knowledge of the local U.S. ambassador or aid director.

The paper, "Foreign Assistance in Focus: Emerging Trends," also said aid is being increasingly distorted by the administration's ever-expanding "war on terrorism" both by short-changing existing long-term aid programs in many poor countries and by relying increasingly on the Pentagon and private contractors to carry out humanitarian and reconstruction missions for which they may be ill-suited.

"The increasing role of the Defense Department to plan and implement humanitarian relief and reconstruction in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to apparent greater reliance on private sector contractors there, raises overall costs dramatically, undercuts efforts to lay the foundation for longer-term development, and ignores the experience of USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), its NGO grantees and international organizations," according to the study.

Moreover, an "increasingly stark gap between funding rhetoric and reality" appears to be growing, as monies actually appropriated have fallen far short of what has been promised, the report says. The result is that U.S. credibility and leadership are undermined.

The new report was released just as Congress is set to approve the $18 billion fiscal year (FY) 2004 foreign-aid appropriations bill. The Senate passed its version of the bill last week, and a joint House-Senate conference committee meets this week to iron out the differences.

The bill does not include some $20 billion in reconstruction aid for Iraq and Afghanistan. That assistance is included in a separate FY 2004 supplemental appropriations bill, which is expected to reach Bush's desk this week.

InterAction, whose members include CARE, Oxfam America, Catholic Relief Services, and Lutheran World Relief, to name just a few, has previously been reluctant to criticize the Bush administration, whose promises in the last two years provide $15 billion over five years to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the Caribbean and to substantially increase development aid to poor countries under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) were greeted with great enthusiasm by the aid community.

But that enthusiasm has waned over the past year due to a number of factors, including differences of opinion between aid groups and the administration over the Pentagon's role in reconstruction and humanitarian relief in both Afghanistan and Iraq; pressure on NGOs active in Afghanistan, in particular, to align themselves more closely with the goals of U.S. foreign policy; and the administration's failure to provide the additional resources for new programs (such as AIDS and the MCA) that had been promised.

"There is increasing concern that resources for these important initiatives will come at the expense of existing development and humanitarian programs," the report noted. "As Congress further pares back the Administration's funding request, a Hobson's choice has emerged between funding for core development programs versus high-profile new initiatives and emergencies, such as HIV/AIDS, conflict prevention, or post-conflict reconstruction."

The NGOs are particularly worried about the growing incoherence in the aid program, caused largely by the diffusion of responsibilities and resources across throughout the government bureaucracy. Thus, the MCA is supposed to be administered by a new organization, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, that is entirely separate from USAID. Similarly, a new State Department office will administer AIDS programs for Africa and the Caribbean, while the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is to play an increased role in international HIV/AIDS programs.

Similarly, the administration has created a new Middle East Partnership Initiative to carry out activities traditionally implemented by USAID, while a new Famine Fund will be controlled by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and a new U.S. Emergency Fund for Complex Foreign Crises will be co-managed by OMB and the National Security Council. Meanwhile, the Pentagon appears to be expanding its role in relief and reconstruction in conflict and post-conflict situations, a trend which has serious implications for efforts by humanitarian groups to retain their neutrality.

"The creation of new entities alongside a diminished--but otherwise unreformed--U.S. Agency for International Development is leading to increased fragmentation of resources and responsibilities, confusion externally about who is in charge, and a loss of coherence in the field as multiple agencies pursue similar goals with little coordination," the report states, noting that it also leads to much greater difficulty on the part of other western donors in coordinating U.S. aid programs.

In addition, the administration's decision to change foreign aid structures and operations or create new ones are often implemented "in an ad hoc manner, often with little transparency and consultation with stakeholders, or consideration of lessons learned from the United States' long experience in foreign aid," the report said.

The result is that USAID, the only federal agency with a mandate to look at the big picture and coordinate all forms of assistance around the world, has become "submerged under new layers of bureaucracy, with less authority, fewer resources and a greatly diminished ability to shape and influence policy."

The focus on the war on terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, also risks diverting both attention and international support from other needy regions, notably Africa and Latin America, according to the report, which stressed its concern that ultimately the priority given to front-line countries will reduce the amount of aid available to other regions.

Copyright 2003


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