President Obama has been a strong supporter of foreign aid throughout his first term, which is not surprising for someone who spent part of his childhood in developing countries and was the son of a development expert. But unlike his predecessor, he has yet to translate his support into an enduring legacy. By the end of his first term, President Bush had established a new aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation; signed legislation creating an enormous new aid program to combat HIV/AIDS; and begun ramping up U.S. aid to Africa, on track toward ultimately tripling it. Obama has made some good headway in his first term, producing the government's first global development policy and an innovative new policy on disaster resilience, launching new efforts to combat global hunger, supporting reforms to the U.S. Agency for International Development and committing to greater aid transparency. But while Bush's major development achievements continue to enjoy broad bipartisan support, President Obama's achievements remain more tenuous and could be reversed in the future. As he enters his second term, the president should take several steps to cement his legacy on global development.
First, he should work with Congress to pass major foreign aid legislation. This will take more work than pursuing reforms under executive authority, but it will also enable him to be more ambitious - changing legislative parameters rather than working within them - and more confident that his reforms will endure. President Bush's tenure provides a good example. His PEPFAR program to fight HIV was legislated through Congress, and four years after he left office it is going strong and enjoys robust congressional support. Conversely, his attempt to restructure the foreign assistance architecture - pursued independently of Congress - gained little congressional support and has been largely reversed under Obama.
Obama's reform agenda, which has already faced congressional skepticism, risks the latter fate. But the political stars may be aligning to enable more ambitious - and durable - legislative reforms. The House unanimously passed Rep. Ted Poe's (R-Texas) modest but important bipartisan aid reform bill at the end of the last session, and the Senate came close but ran out of time. Both chambers appear open to sensible aid reform legislation. With John Kerry, one of the Hill's biggest aid reform advocates, moving to the State Department, Obama will have the perfect person to broker an even more ambitious deal: reforming the Foreign Assistance Act, which has not been rewritten since its passage during the Kennedy administration. The world has changed a bit since then, but U.S. law has not kept pace. Instead, the FAA has ballooned from 49 pages to over 400, with add-ons, workarounds and legislative barnacles (earthquake aid to Italy from 1976: still in there!) that hobble the coherence of U.S. aid. Reforming the FAA could enable Obama to lock in many of the reforms he is pursuing on his own and could also build congressional buy-in for his signature Feed the Future initiative, as President Bush did with PEPFAR legislation. Even better, just-departed Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) has already done the legwork of developing a blueprint for a comprehensive FAA rewrite.
Second, President Obama should rein in the military's forays into foreign aid. One downside of President Bush's development legacy was an unprecedented expansion of military involvement in aid. Just as you would not want an aid worker leading a tank battalion, it turns out that soldiers are not terribly effective aid workers. The military can bring valuable tools in some circumstances, like major logistical capacities in the immediate aftermath of tsunamis or earthquakes. But in a classic case of mission creep, the military's embrace of aid has expanded well beyond its comparative advantages, frequently overlapping with existing civilian capabilities. Not only has the GAO found that this duplication wastes taxpayer resources at a time when the Pentagon needs to trim budgets, but research in Afghanistan and elsewhere has shown that it can also be damaging and counterproductive to U.S. policy objectives. In his second term Obama should direct the Pentagon to use the looming budget drawdown to right-size its aid efforts and to issue new rules limiting any future Pentagon involvement in aid.
Finally, the president should fix the impasse between terror financing regulations and humanitarian aid. Last year, amidst a dire famine in Somalia, the U.S. found itself blocked from sending aid to the famine zones, in part because of a 2-year-old tussle over nebulous terror financing rules. The government eventually issued a limited waiver allowing aid to go forward, but doing so took so long that tens of thousands of people had already starved to death by the time U.S. aid began to flow. This was an extreme case but not an isolated one: A parallel challenge surfaced following last year's earthquake in Iran, and another may be emerging now in Mali. President Obama could issue an executive order to avoid repeating this scenario, and he could also work with Congress to put in place a more comprehensive fix.
Obama now has four more years to seal his development legacy and a host of good options for doing so. None of these tasks would be easy, but all would have a huge impact on U.S. development policy and those it assists around the world.
Jeremy Konyndyk, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Mercy Corps. This article was originally published January 17 by The Huffington Post, and is also included in InterAction's series of guest opinions by NGO leaders on ways to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective.