US budget cuts ‘could reverse USAID’s gains’

Obama's administration identified science and innovation as key areas in need of reform within USAID Copyright: Flickr/marcn

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Recent developments in the aid strategy of the United States — such as reversing a previous reduction in technical experts, and promoting more country-driven, outcome-oriented systems — have been endorsed by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The DAC’s peer review report of US aid efforts, released last week (28 July), suggested that the country should do more to incorporate and reflect the goals of the countries it assists, but it was generally positive about the reform efforts within the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

These have included a renewed emphasis on the role of science and technology (S&T), and innovation, in promoting development, two of seven key areas of reform that have been identified by the Obama administration.

But the report’s release has coincided with bitter political fighting in Washington over the future of the US budget, with foreign aid already in the firing line for major cuts that observers fear could reverse the progress of recent years.

Samuel Worthington, president of InterAction, in Washington, DC, an alliance of almost 200 non-governmental organisations active internationally, told SciDev.Net that the budget passed by congress this week (1 August) envisaged cuts of up to 30 per cent in USAID’s operating expenditure.

"This undoes all their gains over the last few years, and pares USAID down to being a contractor of services," he said. "Even if some groups were spared within the organisation, the pain would be widespread if these cuts take place. The organisation’s technical capacity and knowledge capacity will be reduced."

John Daly, a former USAID science official said that everyone is expecting foreign assistance to get significant cuts, and that "there is a risk, even a probability" of gains made by USAID in recent years being reversed.

"The problem is no-one has an interest in protecting the foreign assistance budget," Daly said.

Alex Dehgan, S&T advisor to the USAID administrator said the final details on the budget are not yet known, but that the cuts "will definitely slow things down."

Responding to the DAC’s criticism that US aid to developing countries should better incorporate and reflect the goals of the countries it assists, Dehgan, said: "A lot of what we are trying to do is consistent with the priorities of developing countries. We are not choosing specific technologies but identifying problems."

He emphasised that S&T has become an important part of the US development aid strategy. "We are not trying to dictate [to developing countries]. We want to work with them to create spaces to use talent to resolve development problems using science and technology."

The DAC report said the United States needed to strengthen public support for its aid programme, using more targeted efforts to reap results, and needed to engage with non-governmental organisations, foundations and others to improve public awareness of development.

Although the US development assistance has doubled in relation to the size of its economy, from 0.1 per cent of gross national income (GNI) in 2001 to 0.21 per cent in 2010, it is still well below the DAC countries average of 0.32 per cent. It ranks 19th out of the 23 DAC bilateral donors on this measure.

Link to full DAC report  [1.69MB]