A Thanksgiving agenda for U.S. foreign aid
November 21st, 2012
12:03 PM ET

A Thanksgiving agenda for U.S. foreign aid

By Sarah Jane Staats, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Sarah Jane Staats is director of the Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Program at the Center for Global Development. The views expressed are her own.

This Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama should invite one more guest to his national security table: the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Aside from pardoning Cobbler or Gobbler from this year’s turkey dinner, giving USAID a permanent seat on the National Security Council is one of three stroke-of-the-pen decisions he could take before his second term begins that would be good for U.S. global development policy.

From Kabul to Khartoum, development is a critical tool to advance U.S. foreign policy and national security. Obama says the military can’t confront these challenges alone. Nor can the military and U.S. diplomats. Obama promised during his first term to strengthen U.S. development alongside defense and diplomacy. But development is still at the kids’ table while the “adults” – State Department, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and others – make the “important” decisions.

A move to the adults’ table comes with added responsibilities. In many families, this means speaking up politely and with proper grammar. For USAID, this means providing smart development expertise and results…and interagency meetings. But with soaring aid budgets in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, USAID already has the responsibility and is invited to attend some, but not all, NSC meetings. A permanent seat at the table would give development a distinct voice at the highest government decision-making body. This doesn’t mean the development argument will always be persuasive or be the most important; it does mean it will be heard distinct from diplomatic political realities that the secretary of state must prioritize and the defense concerns the Pentagon brings to the table. It could also help retain the current USAID administrator, or should he leave, recruit another high-caliber development expert. And now is the time – before the next secretary of state is named – to make the decision according to policy principles rather than people or portfolios.

More from GPS; Why USAID is leaving Russia

Meanwhile, the best new development thinking might come from outside the government. The president’s global development council, announced by the White House last February, is meant to bring in the brightest independent thinkers and doers in development to advise the president and other senior U.S. officials. They would also champion the issues with the American public. Names have been suggested to the White House, but there is still no word on who will join the council or when. But it should be a straightforward personnel decision that the president can make before the end of his first term.

Similarly, Congress created four non-governmental seats on the board of the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that gives five-year aid compacts to select, well-governed poor countries. The MCC, by design, selects countries as eligible for the aid based on objective and public criteria rather than political motivation; the public board members help make sure the MCC sticks to these principles. The only problem is that two of the four public board seats remain vacant and have been empty since September 2009. The new board members must be chosen by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and approved by the White House. All indications suggest the names are stuck at the White House – likely due to a hitch with Senator Reid’s pick – but could be resolved relatively easily and quickly.

Finally, when you have a good recipe, sometimes the best thing to do is just double it. This rule could apply to the Obama administration’s U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a new online, public tool to collect and share information about how and where the United States spends foreign aid. There is new government-wide guidance on how the 22 different U.S. government agencies that provide some form of foreign aid should report to the dashboard. It will take time. But the administration could ensure that at least five agencies – the State Department, USAID, MCC, Treasury and the Department of Agriculture –add their data before inauguration day to keep up the good momentum and help inform where the next (or last) aid dollar goes.

One would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe development is part of the U.S. foreign policy family these days. But there are some simple things our host for the next four years can do right now to make sure development has a real seat at the table, insights from outside, and a recipe for success.

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Topics: Aid • United States

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Catherine An

    A video with similar ideas – and five more for the president's foreign aid agenda: http://blogs.cgdev.org/globaldevelopment/2012/11/why-wait-development-action-before-obamas-second-term.php

    November 21, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  2. donnasheets

    wishing all the troops a happy thanksgiving and thank you for keeping us safe we appreicate everyday that you do your service for this country. and pray for the ones that dont make it home alive and the men over there afghanistan and every where else there is war

    November 21, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply

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