Reform the right should embrace

For the U.S. to save more lives, build self-sufficiency abroad

By Mark Green | Thursday, August 20, 2009

Remarkably, a reform effort is under way in Washington that has yet to devolve into a partisan shouting match. The reform involves our foreign-aid apparatus, which is in dire need of an overhaul. It matters because amid this tough economy, every taxpayer dollar is especially precious and because of the great good foreign aid can do.

The legislation that authorizes our overseas development programs is more than 45 years old, without updates or improvements in more than 20 years. At a time when our national-security and foreign-policy priorities have become increasingly dependent on effective development, our political leaders must act swiftly and put partisan politics aside in order to enact reforms that will make our foreign-aid programs more efficient, more effective and therefore more capable of supporting and advancing our national interests around the globe.

Despite some initial positive steps by the Obama administration and Congress, a critical constituency is missing from the discussion: congressional conservatives. As a proud fiscal hawk and a true believer in the power of U.S. foreign assistance to lift lives and enhance alliances, I urge conservatives to get more engaged and embrace the opportunity this debate presents.

I served in Congress from 1999 to 2007, when an unprecedented bipartisan coalition came together and increased U.S. foreign assistance aimed at easing the suffering of people in developing countries. Without the participation and leadership of conservatives in Congress and the George W. Bush administration, none of this would have been possible.

The vital role played by conservatives was perhaps best exemplified by the transformation of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, who went from being Congress' most strident anti-foreign-aid voice to a co-sponsor of a bill providing $200 million to help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Mr. Helms and other conservatives, including President Bush and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, were key players in passing landmark programs such as African debt relief, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President's Malaria Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Act (which created the Millennium Challenge Corp.).

Without these initiatives, millions of lives would have been lost, the conditions of despair that terrorists and dictators all too effectively exploit would have deepened, and fewer developing countries would be on paths toward self-sufficiency.

Despite this important progress, U.S. foreign assistance is not as effective and supportive of our diplomacy and security efforts as it should be. Right now, foreign-assistance programs are overseen by more than 60 government offices that frequently are competitive and uncoordinated. Foreign-aid budgeting has become a mess of earmarks because the Cold War-era Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA) is decades out of date.

I saw firsthand how inefficient this system can be at times when I was U.S. ambassador to Tanzania in 2007-08. Early on, I would attend ribbon-cuttings for U.S.-funded health clinics and other programs only to see banners with countless logos and acronyms from organizations -- including different U.S. government agencies -- all taking credit for the American people's generosity. The maze of obscure names not only was unsightly, but it also confused our Tanzanian audience and diminished the diplomatic value of our work.

After sitting through a few of these events, I issued a directive creating a unified logo -- an American flag with the phrase "From the American People" in Kiswahilii -- and requiring that it be on every press statement and event banner.

Thankfully, we see some progress. The Foreign Relations committees in both the House and Senate have introduced reform bills that have gained some Republican support, but there is still a long way to go. The same leadership from conservatives that helped deliver millions of people in the developing world from poverty and disease over the last decade is needed to keep the foreign-aid reform effort focused on increasing accountability, eliminating waste and maximizing results.

I call upon my conservative former colleagues in Congress to rise to this challenge and join the debate. I urge the Democratic majority to run the reform process in an open and bipartisan way and keep it from becoming a debate over money and divisive social issues.

Given that foreign-assistance reform is fundamentally about making the United States better at saving lives, helping more countries like Tanzania get on the road to true self-sufficiency and highlighting our leadership and compassion abroad, we have to get it right -- and we have to do it quickly.

Mark Green is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin and ambassador to Tanzania. He is the director of the Malaria No More Policy Center.