Priorities for improving US Development Policy

Ray OffenheiserRay Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, writes on the Modernizing Foreign Assistance blog that US foreign assistance should be more transparent, more predictable, reduce reliance on US contractors and NGOs, use local NGOs, use country-based rather than Washington-based planning, and focus on outcomes rather than outputs.

This is very good stuff (and particularly commendable for the concise way it is written, without any of the usual development-speak).  I am particularly pleased to see transparency and predictability as the first two items.

I would add three things.

First, “reduce reliance on US contractors” is an anaemic recommendation.  The US should follow international best practice and untie all its aid.  In particular, the way the US and EU dump their surplus food in developing countries, driving local farmers out of business, is a disgrace.

Second, a quick way to improve the effectiveness of scarce aid resources would be to spend more money in the poorest and most populous developing countries.  Less than 40% of total aid is spent in less developed countries. Just shifting aid to the countries that need it the most would make a big difference to the impact of that aid.

Third, Congress needs to stop with the earmarking which is a huge driver of inefficiency in US foreign assistance.  Perhaps it is implicit in the final recommendation (make plans in the country, not in Washington) but it needs to be explicit.  The Bush administration did a pretty good job of preventing Congress from imposing earmarks on the MCC; this approach should be extended to the rest of US foreign assistance.

4 comments on “Priorities for improving US Development Policy”

  1. The problem with the least-developed countries is that bizarrely they tend to have the least-developed governance. All the more reason to radically shake up how and who it is delivered to huh?

  2. I’d point out the example of Global Fund CCM’s as pretty ‘local’ decision making mechanisms. As such they tend to reflect the priorities of decision makers in the country. As someone who sat on one of these as an INGO rep for some time I’d have to say this is a mixed bag. In countries with weak/corrupt public sector institutions and weak civil society it can serve to perpetuate the status quo.

    If the vested local elite (both gov’t & civil society) have no interest in any substantial change how does the donor go about addressing systemic issues?

    Owen replies: Perhaps they shouldn’t?

  3. Great points by both you and Ray.

    I do take issue a bit with your casual query to Bula’s point about the problems with the CCMs “perhaps they shouldn’t?” deal with the systemic problems. Unfortunately, not dealing with them can mean: funding ARV drugs which are procured only from one national firm, which can’t deliver on a timely basis, charges double the international price, and has iffy quality control. somewhat problematic from an aid effectiveness perspective; and leading to fewer patients treated, and irregular ARV treatment for patients on therapy (e.g. more deaths and avoidable sickness).

    I also think it’s worth contrasting your point 2 (donors should target their funding…to the poorest and most populous) with the point Bill Easterly made in his blog today (referencing Tom Friedman’s piece) http://aidwatchers.com/2010/04/the-worst-kept-secret-in-aid-aid-receiving-governments-run-the-aid-agencies/
    about how donors wanting to funnel money to specific places leads to them have little or no leverage; which can lead to the money being spent very badly indeed (Friedman discusses Afghanistan in this regard).

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and