Right before recess last week, Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) re-introduced the Global Partnerships Act (H.R. 1793), the first major rewrite of foreign assistance legislation in decades. The bill is an enormous accomplishment, created through a three-year effort led by former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Howard Berman.
A rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act is long past due. US Foreign Assistance programs have not been reauthorized since 1986; the underlying law dates from 1961. The problem isn’t just the quaint and kitschy references to Kampuchea, East Pakistan, or Zaire; it’s the fact that good legislation should actually help US government implementers do their job well, and should help Congress conduct effective oversight. On both counts, the existing system is failing miserably (see chart).
Like most huge pieces of legislation, this one offers something for (almost) everyone—Pollyannas and pessimists alike. Cynics will be quick to point out that, with 889 pages and no Republican co-sponsors, this bill is hardly on a fast track to enshrinement in the US Code.
But such cynicism misses the point. An effort like the Berman/Connolly bill is not only important once it becomes law. It can also be important for the conversation it drives among different stakeholders. As we’ve noted before, the most important reason to update foreign aid legislation is to try to get a new consensus between the President, the Congress, and the American people about what we’re actually trying to achieve with our development programs and what success looks like. And the Berman/Connolly bill provides a wealth of specific improvements for policymakers to convene around, including, but not limited to:
- linking US funding priorities to country-level planning (Sec. 1018);
- greater aid transparency and predictability (Sec. 8301); and
- better coordination of US efforts to promote trade & investment in partner countries (Sec. 7002).
Oxfam has heard from local leaders in the field that recent US reform efforts are starting to get noticed. But few of these reforms have actually made it into law. Without legislation to protect these reforms—and more important, without political consensus around them—it’s possible many reforms won’t stick long enough to really pay off for people in the developing world.
We don’t expect Congress is going to swallow the Berman/Connolly bill whole. But it’s worth them spending some time chewing on it, trying to figure out where they can make real progress towards a new political consensus around US development efforts.
Here’s what else I had to say about the bill from last week’s InterAction Forum: