Economy forces Obama to rein in foreign-aid goals
He wants to double aid by the end of his term to help improve America's image abroad, but that no longer looks possible.
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Congress did recently approve a record $900 million for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, the highest annual US contribution since the international fund was established in 2002. But Global Fund officials say they will watch the 2010 contributions closely for signs of any affect on donations.Skip to next paragraph
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"We are all aware of the severity of the global economic crisis and the strain it is putting on budgets and economies," says Christoph Benn of the Global Fund in Geneva.
He remains hopeful. When they were senators, the current president, vice president, and secretary of State all signed letters supporting a significant increase in the American contribution to the Global Fund.
The current global environment would be a particularly bad time for the US to scale back foreign assistance, says Mr. Radelet.
"Whether it's justified or not, whether we like it or not, people believe the US caused this economic crisis," he says. "If poor people around the world believe they are suffering because of the US, and then we cut back our aid, it would really weaken our image and hurt our leadership position globally."
Yet Radelet and others say this moment calls for more than just more spending. This is a good time to overhaul America's foreign-aid program and to deliver more bang for the buck. "There's also a growing view that we can do better and spend the money we do have much more efficiently," says Radelet, who is also co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, or MFAN.
The coalition of more than 150 development experts, military officers, nonprofit organizations, and business leaders is calling for a major overhaul of the US foreign-aid system to meet 21st century needs.
"The approach we use today comes out of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which was a very different time presenting us with a very different set of issues," Radelet says.
Even the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Robert Gates' guidance is calling on the State Department and other civilian powers to take back the foreign-policy and development functions that over the years have been ceded to the Defense Department. Obama is signaling his support for this notion with a hefty increase in his proposed State Department budget.
Reorganizing, streamlining, and even eliminating some of the 21 agencies involved in foreign assistance will be part of any reform. But finding agencies willing to give up their piece of foreign-aid turf is likely to be the hard part.