“Development depends on good governance,” President Barack Obama said to a round of applause from Ghanaian officials during his recent visit to that country, considered a role model for good governance. “This is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.” President Obama’s views truly reflect the new tone reshaping US foreign assistance globally.
The focus under the Obama administration is on giving USAID a stronger performance role attuned to a new vision ensuring strategic and effective use of foreign assistance resources. It will help USAID respond to global needs to consolidate the gains in U.S. foreign policy achievement with compassion and care. USAID has already got a concrete set of achievements in the global advance of freedom, protection of human rights, promoting sustainable economic growth and reducing widespread poverty. USAID is also well known globally as an organization that promotes quality education, combats disease and improves public health systems. It also responds to urgent humanitarian needs, works on conflict mitigation and supports the growth of democracy and well-governed states.
President Obama stated during the 64th UN General Assembly that the U.S. fully supported the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and would work to revive fresh thinking on a number of important global issues concerning the future generation, namely: climate change, nuclear disarmament, the global food crisis, the HINI pandemic and the international financial and economic crisis. USAID as the main implementing arm of U.S. global assistance will set to achieve these noble set of priorities for the poorest of the poor in the developing countries, for whom daily survival has a larger meaning in the context of freedom and democracy.
At the outset, in her first speech to the USAID staff at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded coordination, leadership and strategic vision from each and everyone present. She talked about aid in the context of multilateral diplomacy, wherein strategic, operational and performance planning of U.S. foreign assistance would focus on aligning resources with policy priorities, as part of U.S. foreign assistance reform. In other words, USAID would promote good stewardship of foreign assistance funds by strengthening oversight, accountability, and transparency.
For instance, a good example of U.S. foreign policy initiative reaping rich benefits to the world’s population is the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). On May 5, 2009, President Barack Obama introduced a new Global Health Plan which through a comprehensive package sought to spend 65 billion dollars in the next half decade to fight deadly diseases in the poor developing world. It called for a "new comprehensive global health strategy" intending to increase much needed funding to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria with 366 million dollars, and other upcoming global health priorities with 100 million dollars, which includes reducing maternal and infant mortality rates as part of incremental increases up to 2014. With popular initiatives such as this, USAID has become the world’s largest bilateral donor partner.
Earlier in the administration, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wasted little time after being sworn into office before pledging to support development as a key part of America’s foreign policy aims to address global hunger, poverty, lawlessness, and instability. Mrs. Clinton, who visited USAID headquarters Jan. 23 on the second day of her new job, told nearly 1,000 Agency employees that the new administration would boost resources for development. “I wanted to come here today with a very simple message: I believe in development, and I believe with all my heart that it truly is an equal partner, along with defense and diplomacy, in the furtherance of America’s national security,” she told the enthusiastic crowd. In his January 20, 2009 address, President Obama also made a similar commitment, “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”
Accompanying former President Bill Clinton, and on her own, Secretary of State Clinton has visited numerous USAID programs overseas, countries such as Nicaragua, Indonesia, India, and Egypt. She acknowledges that U.S. foreign assistance in fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria have left “positive attitudes” around the world and that “it is essential that the role of USAID and our other foreign assistance programs be strengthened and be adequately funded and be coordinated.” Mrs. Clinton mentioned that Mr. Obama’s late mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, worked on USAID microfinance projects in Indonesia, “so his understanding and commitment to these important human issues runs very deep.” She felt that agency employees see their work as “not just a career, but a labor of love,” asking them to be “more effective” and give more to yield positive transformational results.
Mrs. Clinton also noted that there has been “a very vigorous debate within the development community” about USAID’s place in the government structure. She called on Agency staff to figure out how to “eliminate redundancy” and “streamline procedures.” “I want to know from you what we need to do to make sure that USAID assumes once again the global leadership role you deserve it to have in the delivery of development assistance,” she said. “We are asking you to do more and more with less. And my goal is to make sure we match the mission and the resources.” Mrs. Clinton has backed the use of "smart power" employing a full range of economic, military, political and development tools in U.S. foreign policy.
The Obama administration inherited a foreign aid system starved of civilian experts and burdened by a bewildering array of mandates. USAID's full-time staff shrank by 40 percent over the past two decades, but the assistance it oversees doubled, to $13.2 billion in 2008. The agency has a skeleton crew of technical experts, with four engineers for the entire world, Mrs. Clinton noted recently. Meanwhile, aid budgets have been saddled with presidential directives, "buy America" provisions and congressional earmarks that raise the cost of aid and reduce its effectiveness, American development specialists argue.
The Obama administration has requested in next year's budget 350 new positions for the agency, which currently has 2,200 full-timers. Greater integration of diplomacy and development will give the aid mission more importance, not less. In the coming days, USAID anticipates increased attention to performance management from the Executive and Legislative branches. With the appointment of a Chief Performance Officer, the Obama Administration has publicly expressed interest in improving government transparency and accountability at USAID. Taken together with the recent introduction of legislation with an explicit emphasis on performance management in foreign assistance, USAID expects that Agency policies and procedures related to managing for results will continue to evolve. Under President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, USAID already leads by example standing as a hallmark of the United States around the world. In doing so, it spends less than 0.5% of the federal budget to work around the globe to achieve its targets.
USAID’s history goes back to the Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe after World War Two and the Truman Administration's Point Four Program. In 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act was signed into law and USAID was created by executive order. USAID has always been recognized in the primacy of multilateral diplomacy and development cooperation, a catalyst of U.S. foreign policy interests rather than unilateralism.
(Surya B. Prasai is an independent global strategic communications, media and international development resources consultant based in Washington D.C. His views have appeared globally on Google, Yahoo and American Chronicle News Nets on international affairs, development, public health, immigration, and climate change issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).
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