Panel at LBJ discusses the future of U.S. foreign assistance

Kylie Fitzpatrick

Foreign aid policy practitioners and professors at a panel discussion Monday emphasized the need for more transparency and efficiency in U.S. foreign assistance.

Kate Weaver, public affairs associate professor, and Erin Lentz, public affairs assistant professor, joined leaders from global development policy organizations as part of the Global Civil Society Series, co-sponsored by the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Weaver said a major challenge for U.S. foreign assistance is to figure out how to reform agencies that provide aid so that they become more transparent. 

“This is really hard because becoming more transparent is a function of a really complex process of organizational change, and change at large bureaucracies like the [United States Agency for International Development] doesn’t come easily,” Weaver said. 

Didier Trinh, executive director of Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, which advocates for effective U.S. foreign assistance, said the Foreign Assistance Act is outdated and the government needs to create a national strategy for development.

“One of MFAN’s key recommendations was to replace the Foreign Assistance Act with a more modern and up-to-date framework for Congress — but for also trying to create a partnership with the executive branch,” Trinh said. 

Porter Delaney — founder of Kyle House Group, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., that helps lead various advocacy and outreach campaigns for global aid effectiveness — said U.S. global development reform efforts are increasing because aid programs, such as foreign assistance funding to Africa and global health spending, have drastically increased over the past decade. 

“The U.S. tripled its foreign assistance funding to Africa during that time between 2002-2008,” Delaney said. “You combine that with the financial crisis and an austere budget environment in Washington, and, invariably, you are going to have a focus on getting more out of less, and I think the primary intent behind aid effectiveness and aid reform is to ensure we’re getting as much as possible out of these investments.”

Brian O’Donnell, public affairs graduate student, worked for an organization called AidData before coming to LBJ. He said he is interested in how data can be used to improve development effectiveness. 

“I think a lot of the way that decisions are made in policy, especially when it comes to things like development that makes people feel good, tends to rely a lot on anecdotal evidence and stories,” O’Donnell said. “But there’s all this data that’s just being generated through the natural process of donors giving money to poor countries, and, through what’s already being spent, we can learn what works and what doesn’t work.”