An American DFID?

One debate that will run and run in the coming months is on the whether, why and how of reforming US foreign assistance – a theme that Barack Obama riffed on frequently during the course of the Presidential campaign.

Over at the Center for Global Development, Sheila Herrling has just posted a Q&A on reforming the antiquated 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which created USAID in the first place. As Herrling observes, the Act has only been overhauled fully on one occasion – and that was back in 1985. So what should reform achieve?  According to Herrling, a new act should:

– clearly outline the objectives and priorities of U.S. foreign assistance programs;

– consolidate decision making and implementation functions into a single independent institutional entity;

– specify the roles and responsibilities of other government agencies where appropriate;

– clarify the coordination of oversight responsibilities and functions; adjust regulatory requirements to fit the reality of implementing assistance programs; and

– discourage to the highest degree possible political and bureaucratic constraints (such as earmarks and presidential initiatives).

However, the really big question lurking in the background is whether USAID should be hived off and made into a separate department, a la DFID in the UK: expect plenty of speculation and debate about this over the course of the spring.  Me, I’m not holding my breath – for two formidable obstacles stand between here and USDFID.

One: the fact that Obama can’t just create a new department with a stroke of the pen.  In the US, machinery of government changes of that magnitude need Congressional approval (many would argue that the only reason the Department for Homeland Security came into being was the determined campaign run by the 9/11 families for just this outcome).

Two: the even more challenging hurdle of one Ms Hillary Clinton.  Hillary made plenty clear as soon as she arrived at State that she sees development as one of the core pillars of foreign policy.  It’s very unlikely that she’d see such a significant part of her empire slip through her fingers…