No Easy Fix for U.S. Foreign Aid

Obama's got the right idea, but it will be harder than he thinks.

During a Wednesday speech at the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out the results of his administration's long-delayed review of America's global development policy. The take-away was simple: The United States has to start being picky about how it distributes aid. Gone are the days when Washington can help everyone everywhere. As Obama declared, "We must be more selective and focus our efforts where we have the best partners and where we can have the greatest impact."

Reform of U.S. foreign assistance programs is long overdue. Development efforts have been governed by a messy and often conflicting set of approaches -- the administration itself notes that government agencies are today pursuing over 1,000 different development goals, objectives, and priorities. Every Congress and administration for the last five decades has tacked on additional language to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act and other regulations about what aid should look like. The increasing number of agencies now operating overseas has only added to the confusion.

The good news is that Obama gets it. The bad news is that all of this is much easier said than done.

Obama's plan is simple: Pick your countries, pick your priorities. Once America selects a country to focus on, its re-vamped aid system will focus on sustained economic growth, innovation and technology development, and country "ownership" -- that is, getting local input into figuring out what's most important and tailoring the aid specifically to the stated need. The policy requires the administration to update its global development strategy every four years. And the United States will work with other donors to hammer out a sensible division of labor on the plethora of global needs.

There is little to argue with in all of this, except for the fact that it will need some luck -- and a lot of vigilance -- to actually work. The central concept that aid dollars should only go to countries that will use them wisely, for one, is certain to add complications. The George W. Bush administration had in fact begun a limited-scale program based on this principle, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which applies strict standards and a clear application process to potential recipients. But to this day, some of the top recipients of Washington's funds include countries in which reform remains an afterthought.

Beyond this basic roadblock, there are five main points of tension that could make the bright ideas in the new strategy highly difficult to realize:

Rhetoric versus Reality

Since taking office, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly said they want to make the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) the "world's premier development agency." But their actions and the actions of the administration generally have people wondering if this is actually the case. The pace of political appointments at the agency has been nothing short of glacial; less than half of the senior political staff positions at USAID have been filled. The State Department, of which USAID is a part, has also resisted provisions that would give the aid agency a stronger voice at the policymaking table. And despite several efforts negotiated between State and the National Security Council to staff USAID more robustly, the agency remains firmly under State's purview. This is problematic because the diplomatic corps is notorious for wanting to use aid dollars to curry short-term favor and influence with host countries, rather than focusing on long-haul development efforts.

The true test of the limits of rhetoric will come when the administration faces the decision whether to help a country that's friendly but not reform-minded. The evidence so far doesn't bode well: Ethiopia and Rwanda, two important U.S. allies, are featured prominently in the administration's new Global Health Initiative -- despite a crescendo of complaints about human-rights violations in both countries.

The Division of Labor

Obama's new policy emphasizes a clear division of labor with other donors and multilateral institutions. But making this happen will be extraordinarily difficult. Developing countries have long complained that every different donor brings with it a variety of different requirements -- and reams of corresponding paperwork. Very little is said in the review about how this division of labor will take place and how donors will collectively reduce or unify the paperwork burden they place on aid-receiving countries. This isn't just about getting everyone to agree; some of the key multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, are both quite slow in instituting programs and reluctant to impose standards related to good governance or human rights.

PEPFAR versus Everything Else

PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, was a signature Bush initiative that substantially increased U.S. assistance around the globe, particularly to Africa. It has grown into a huge financial commitment for the United States, and politicians of all stripes have been loath to criticize a lifesaving program launched by a Republican president. But no single area of aid spending is probably more sharply at odds with Obama's commitment to promote sustainable, country-driven economic growth and reform.

Huge chunks of PEPFAR money are now flowing into countries like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Uganda -- not exactly high on the list of democratic or free market reformers. But PEPFAR has a strong and vocal constituency and remains vital in saving lives. The resolution of the PEPFAR dilemma will be a key barometer of how seriously the administration takes its new approach. The compromise will likely entail using greater percentages of PEPFAR funds to focus on reforming local health ministries rather than simply relying on external aid to serve as a substitute.

The Economic Growth Problem

The troubled state of a beneficiary country's politics isn't the only measure that could derail its aid relationship with the United States -- economics also matters, something that could create some serious challenges in the long-term, especially given that USAID has steadily been drained of expert personnel on economic issues. The agency now relies heavily on outside contractors to fill the gap.

In light of the recent global economic meltdown, as well as the very, very mixed results of World Bank recommendations in the 1980s, developing countries may not be entirely receptive to listening to American economic advice. Given that Washington has been unwilling to take on hard issues like the U.S. domestic agricultural subsidies that prove an anti-competitive drag on many African countries, cooperation could become even more difficult. It will be hard to convince a developing country of the joys of the free market if the U.S. still doesn't have the political courage to reduce handouts to our own farmers.

Solving the Crisis du Jour

The policy review has surprisingly little to say about work in post-conflict settings such as Iraq and Afghanistan or high-profile settings like Haiti or Pakistan that are seen as strategic priorities -- despite their abysmal record of helping themselves. In terms of dollars and importance, these programs have been the most visible and the most visibly problematic over the last decade. Administrations rarely get to choose their crises, and they have to deal with the fact that  development is extraordinarily difficult without stability and a government committed to reform. Still, simply shoveling money out the door, as has often taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan, won't do much good.

Obama is to be congratulated for taking on the tricky business of global development in a credible and thoughtful manner. But after the policy review begins the hard part.



Warlord TV

When Afghanistan's powerbrokers own the networks, they control what's on the air. The result: documentaries of Dostum chasing Taliban fighters across northern Afghanistan on horseback.

On Thursday nights, when Afghan Star, a popular American Idol-like talent show, is on TV, the streets of Kabul are noticeably quieter. Even in a land torn apart by fighting and where people consume less energy per person than in any other country, somehow 65 local television stations still manage to beam programming to captivated viewers in Afghanistan's larger cities. In Kabul, for instance, eight in 10 people have television access, and more than 20 stations are on the air. Not every household has its own television set, though, and so TV-watching is often a communal activity, as small groups of people sit in barber shops and bakeries, and outside electronics stores, watching flickering screens.

Foreign comedies and drama are popular. In addition to Afghan Star, some stations run hit Iranian movies and Indian soap operas. One Afghan television station, Emrooz ("Today"), until recently aired surprisingly liberal shows geared toward younger viewers, including a program called Come and See, which mocked mullahs and fortunetellers, and Afghan Model, a hybrid fashion show and beauty pageant where men and woman paraded down the catwalk, albeit in conservative fashions and with the women's hair fully covered. (For such programming, the network incurred the wrath of Afghanistan's Council of Ministers, which in late July ordered the station to temporarily shutter for allegedly "fomenting religious differences and disrupting national unity.") 

Most entertainment shows on Afghan TV are, if not literally produced elsewhere (like Indian soap operas), then adaptations of formats from abroad (like Afghan Star). But Afghanistan does have its own unique form of television entertainment, albeit not one the rest of the world should necessarily want to copy: Warlord TV.

"You can't be a self-respecting warlord these days," one Afghan journalist told us recently in Kabul, "and not have your own television station." Because there's obviously not a lot of money in the advertising business in Afghanistan, much of the funding for stations comes from the government, foreign donors, and private owners. It's really no surprise, then, that several prominent Afghan political mavericks are funding their own television networks -- including some of the country's most notorious power brokers.

For instance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and now head of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan and the opposition coalition, the Afghanistan National Front, owns the Noor ("Light") network. His station airs an evening talk show called End of the Line, featuring guests who mostly call in to complain about his political rival, President Hamid Karzai.

While Rabbani's station helps him criticize his opponent, Abdul Qader Dostum's station, Aina ("Mirror"), helps keep his brother, Abdul Rashid Dostum in the spotlight. The latter Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek leader who fought with the Soviets in the 1980s before switching sides to join the mujahideen; he was a general in the Afghan Army before being removed from his post following scandal in 2008, and then reinstated by Karzai in 2009. In short, he has been at the periphery of several waves of Afghan history, but never at the center. Now his 9-year-old television station, Aina, airs Turkish and Central Asian music videos as well as political programs with a pro-Dostum slant -- including documentaries of the warlord's dashing military exploits. Viewers can watch hours of archival footage of Dostum chasing Taliban fighters across northern Afghanistan on horseback or playing buzkashi (Afghanistan's version of polo, played with a goat's carcass instead of a ball) on his stallions.

Or take Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq's network, Rah-e-Farda, which means "Future Path." Mohaqiq is another former mujahideen leader and now an MP in the Afghan parliament. He is a well-known advocate for the rights of the Hazara, an oft-persecuted Shiite minority ethnicity. Rah-e Farda's line-up is stacked with sports, religious, and political programs such as Rawzana ("Beacon") and Tarjoman-e Seyasi ("Political Interpreter") that feature mainly political talk. The star of the channel, however, is Mohaqeq; clips of his recent speeches and his glorious past battlefield encounters with Taliban fighters are often featured.

It's true that action shots and scenes of daring-do are a staple of networks anywhere -- but usually the protagonists aren't also the owners of the television stations. Suffice it to say, New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, makes no such appearances on horseback on his financial network, Bloomberg TV.

But overt political propaganda is hardly the only problem with Afghan TV. What's worse is what doesn't make it on the air at all. Freedom of speech is enshrined in Afghanistan's 2004 constitution, yet this year Freedom House graded the Afghan media as "not free" -- ranking it 165 out of 196 countries. Earlier this month, Sayed Hamid Noori, vice president of Afghanistan's Association of Independent Journalists, was found dead outside his home with multiple stab wounds. Since 2001, 27 journalists (12 of them foreigners) have been killed in Afghanistan, according to the media-monitoring group Nai. There is an impressive and growing breed of professional Afghan journalists, but because they face intimidation from insurgents, warlords, drug lords, and government officials who demand positive coverage, the level of self-censorship is extremely high; understandably, local reporters are hesitant to broach controversial subjects.

Some observers herald the sheer number of television and radio stations in Afghanistan today as a victory. A 2008 report by the U.S. Institute of Peace noted hopefully that, "The development of media in post-Taliban Afghanistan has been relatively successful ... in establishing free and responsible expression." The quantity of networks on air is indeed remarkable given the impoverished state of the country's infrastructure, yet numbers tell only part of the story. It's time to start paying attention to what's actually on Afghanistan's airwaves -- and what isn't.

Scott Nelson/Getty Images