Aiding the Future

Does U.S. foreign assistance really work?

Published on Foreign Policy FP, by MICHAEL WILKERSON, JULY 20, 2009.

… In a recent interview with AllAfrica.com, U.S. President Barack Obama said he hoped to amend U.S. foreign-aid policies that mean “Western consultants and administrative costs end up gobbling huge percentages of our aid overall.” On July 10, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review intended to look at improving the effectiveness of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Several reform-minded bills have also been introduced in Congress. 

On the heels of Obama’s first visit to Africa and with the reform debate ramping up, Foreign Policy and Oxfam America held a panel discussion on July 16 to debate the future of U.S. foreign assistance. Along with Oxfam’s director of aid effectiveness, prominent Africans from civil society, the media, and government were asked to share what is and is not working with regard to U.S. policies. Excerpts:

Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America:

What do we know [about foreign aid] that actually works? For Oxfam that is about [local] ownership. Why do we care about ownership? Because all the aid in the world is not going to get the bottom billion out of poverty. We all know it. If we want sustainable solutions, it’s about [local states and citizens] working together in a political and economic compact where states actually care about having legitimacy from their citizens.

Right now if you’re a USAID professional on the ground and you’re trying to build local country capacity, essentially, you have to use U.S. contractors and even [U.S.] NGOs, because they’re the only ones who understand the complexities of the Washington bureaucratic system. People aren’t getting the contracts because they’re the most capable at leaving sustainable capacity behind. We’ve got to fix that …

Wore Gana Seck, Green Senegal: … (full long text).

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