Foreign Assistance: Time for a Change

There is a disturbing American presumption that it can develop other societies through the export of Americans overseas.

As we Americans begin to see a decrease in our “boots on the ground overseas” and begin to swear off future occupations, there is renewed discussion in Washington about introducing more “official” foreign development assistance as a necessary surrogate and about reconstituting more government civilian employees abroad. Secretary Clinton’s call to build off of current foreign assistance models in the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) disturbs both me and colleagues who have lived and breathed the anomaly of the preceding century—that is to say, the American presumption that it can develop other societies effectively through the export of Americans overseas and, in many cases, by rushing largess through fledgling systems abroad.

Contrary to the declarations of agencies that benefit from the current model and the misguided notions of theorists such as Jeffrey Sachs,‘inclusive and participatory’ and ‘stable and productive’ states are rarely the result of more foreign assistance. They are a result of smarter foreign assistance. As most veteran field workers will tell you, the majority of “official” American development investments overseas have failed to sustain themselves—they lack local ownership and an equitable investment environment, both internally and externally. More “official” foreign assistance has mostly meant dependency, corruption, and waste.

In these times, which call for national austerity, the Secretary’s entreaty to Congress to multiply the ranks of civil servants abroad—at approximately $500,000 per officer (all-inclusive cost in fragile states), and at a time when new technologies and changing civil landscapes overseas offer more effective mechanisms—is behind the times. Be reminded that these “official” Americans abroad are for the most part sequestered inside American armed perimeters. They exist as enclaves in distant lands, spending most of their days stuck in cubicles, responding to taskers from Washington D.C., and spending their evenings with imported comfort food. The perpetuation of this model is shameful when Americans have such an attractive and necessary alternative: our own civil society.

The Way Forward

Through the judicious use of less than 40 percent of the tax dollars we spend annually on US Foreign Assistance, we can marry the best American civil society has to offer with the best of emerging civil society overseas. While we may not be able to assure “open and pluralistic” states—the expression used in 2003 to justify our entry into Iraq—we can give it a fighting chance, and by doing so, we can project American interests and values at a cost that is acceptable to Americans, as well as sustainable.

The successor model to what we have before us now (which grew out of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act) is predicated on the assumption that globalization is a force that we cannot deny. America can—and should—play a leading role through the careful provision of foreign assistance. But this assistance should harness the capacity and interests of the American private sector (both for-profit and nonprofit), not America’s interests and values as represented by federal employees. In short: civil society, not civil service.

For the cost of placing one federal aid worker in a perimeter overseas, America could, for example, fund a women’s empowerment group in Flatbush, Brooklyn, or any other community, to link, advocate, and support a women’s rights group in Iraq for a decade. In the 50 years since the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act was created, emerging civil society organizations overseas have become ubiquitous and capable, and more importantly, they have become owners of their own national development. They are universally enthusiastic about connecting and uniting with their likenesses in the United States. Certain groups in Flatbush also understand that women’s rights are a universal value.

Over the last 20 years, new technologies have taken root across the developing world. The rights group in Iraq could now, at little cost, communicate by phone, email, or webcam with the group in Flatbush, and form a lasting union around their shared concerns. The group in Flatbush might also choose to send money through a payment portal to support local needs, as defined by the members of the Iraqi group. Transparency and compliance with local and US law could be assured by other civil society organizations that have offices on the ground overseas to create such outcomes. The $500,000 I mentioned earlier could sustain a relationship for years and could create a permanent bond for right relations. Finally, as their local partners (versus a government security officer) assess risk, the Flatbush members could visit Iraq. 

This same model could work for the Chamber of Commerce in Boise, the Persons with Disability Rights Group in Jacksonville, or the Youth Civic Participation Group in Des Moines. America has a mighty asset—a well-established civil society that we can use to project American interests and values overseas effectively. It would be counterproductive to do otherwise.

Notwithstanding the advocacy for this new model of foreign assistance, the US State Department’s role remains critical—not to implement, but to change and assign strategic purpose. It can offer public funds to jump-start this paradigm, coordinate its implementation, and evaluate its progress. The current assistance structure must be put away and modernized to incorporate citizen-to-citizen assistance and rapport in a significant and meaningful way. The days of the current “official assistance” juggernaut are numbered and will be replaced—as surely as the car replaced the horse and buggy a century ago—by engaged global citizens and the new technology at their fingertips.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • BY Patrick Theros

    ON March 21, 2015 12:13 PM

    This is a thoughtful piece and one with which I mostly agree—other than the gratuitous slaps at people who work for the government.  I appreciate Mr. Holdridge’s regard for us at State.  However, I also think that many of my colleagues in USAID had at least as high an energy level, dedication and honesty as the private sector. 

    Having gotten that off my chest.  Yes he is right that most of our aid has gone to expensive projects that have had little impact.  I would add that most of those projects have actually provided corporate welfare for American companies executing them leaving a percentage for foreign politicians smart enough to figure out how to pocket a bit of the money.

    State and USAID have spent tons of money trying to engage American civil society organizations in building relationships. Unfortunately, in the US we denominate effort through money only and we end up making the civil society organizations shape themselves to the money instead of shaping the money to the goals and objectives.

    When I first joined the Foreign Service, a very large portion of our assistance went into scholarships at American institutions of higher learning. This slowly died out for bureaucratic reasons. Scholarship programs produced a very large number of people invested in the relationship with the United States and equipped to slowly transform their own societies. BUT, the payback was long-term and too difficult to measure for Congress so we stopped doing it. Building a highway to nowhere has easier metrics.

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.