The Cable

Report: U.S. ranks low on effectiveness of foreign aid

The United States may be the largest donor of foreign assistance in the world, but it ranks among the lowest in terms of the quality and effectiveness of its aid, according to a new report.

The Center for Global Development (CGD), in cooperation with the Brookings Institution, released its "Quality of ODA Assessment" report Tuesday, which assesses the aid provided to 23 countries by more than 150 aid countries to determine how much value they are getting for their foreign aid money. Although the United States does poorly overall when compared to other countries or multilateral organizations, some agencies rate better than others: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department get poor marks, while the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) does much better.

U.S. foreign assistance has suffered by attempting to address too many of the world's problems -- a challenge that has spread operations too thin to specialize in any one field. "USAID doesn't build any comparative advantage the way many other donors do in any particular specialization or country," explained CGD President Nancy Birdsall, speaking about the report with The Cable. "Over many years USAID has been subjected to more kinds of pressures that have made it less and less efficient, particularly on fostering institutions."

The study looked at 30 separate, measurable indicators and evaluated them in terms of four dimensions: maximizing efficiency (how smartly the money is distributed), fostering institutions (whether the money is helping host governments), reducing the burden on recipient countries (how much the host countries need to do to get the money), and transparency and learning (how much we know about how the aid is being spent).

CDG and Brookings even set up an interactive web tool that allows one to compare the results of different countries and different agencies.

The report is based on data from 2008, but CGD plans to update the information when new data becomes available.

However, Birdsall was optimistic that the current administration was making progress in improving the way the United States distributes aid. "The Obama administration has done a very good job on articulating what needs to be done," she said, referring to the president's speech at the U.N. General Assembly and the recent U.S. Global Leadership Coalition panel with Cabinet Secretaries Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Timothy Geithner. She also said that the administration's recently completed overall development policy review holds out the promise of improvements in the future.

But the rebuilding of USAID, which saw its ranks fall from 15,000 to 3,000 over the last two decades, will take years of painstaking work. Birdsall is also calling on the administration to designate a lead U.S. agency for some of its largest aid initiatives, such as the food security and global health programs.

"Nothing much yet has happened," she said. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in the talking. The direction is right, the rhetoric is good, let's see what the action is."

The Cable

New BBG chief wants more money to combat “enemies” such as China and Russia

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has a new chairman in Walter Isaacson, and the former CNN and Time magazine chief is calling for even more money for the BBG to combat the public diplomacy efforts of America's "enemies," which he identifies as Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China.

The BBG, which oversees a $700 million annual budget to run such organizations as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Free Asia, funds breakthrough reporting in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, but at the same time is facing increased competition from other governments' forays into international broadcasting.

Isaacson said that other countries are stepping up their international broadcasting efforts and that the Congress must allow the U.S. government to do the same.

"We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies," he said. "You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world [and has] reportedly set aside six to ten billion [dollars] -- we've to go to Capitol Hill with that number -- to expand their overseas media operations."

Isaacson said that combating internet censorship would be a major focus of the BBG under his leadership and that China and Iran were the prime targets.

"China, Iran, and other countries block democratic impulses using their later technologies, and Beijing has deployed armies of cyber militias to go after their country's cyber dissidents," he said. "The BBG is at the forefront of combating this. Through constant innovation and technical evolution, our engineers are opening up the Internet gateway for audiences in China and Iran."

"We know where we stand in the fight for Internet freedom," Isaacson said. "Wherever there is a firewall, it's our duty to storm it, to denounce it and to circumvent it."

Isaacson was speaking at last week's 60th anniversary celebration for Radio Free Europe, which he credited as contributing to the end of the Cold War. He made it clear the BBG's outlets will stick to reporting the news objectively, even if that conflicts with the foreign policy of the Obama administration.

"It's sometimes said that our international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it's tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America's public diplomacy by accurately conveying its policies and values to the world," Isaacson said.

"Let me say to you, my fellow journalists, that I will stress and we will stress the primacy of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because in fact, it's the only way to carry out the second mission. You can't do it unless you're credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side."

Pressed by The Cable to explain exactly what that means, especially in light of reports that the Obama administration sought to influence BBG reporting after the disputed Iranian presidential elections, Isaacson promised he wouldn't hesitate to air views that contradict American foreign policy on BBG stations.

He said that the goals of American foreign policy and the objectives of credible journalism overlap about 90 percent of the time -- as for the other 10 percent, a choice must be made.

"I feel it's the role of the BBG to always make the choice on the side of credible journalism, just as you would in the private sector," Isaacson said. "We can never compromise our credibility. And in doing so, that will probably help further the foreign policy interests of the United States. But if it's ever a real conflict, our goal one is to protect our credibility."

UPDATE: Isaacson e-mails in to The Cable to apologize for the remark, while saying that the "enemies" he was referring to were in Afghanistan, not the several countries he mentioned.

"I of course did not mean to refer to, nor do I consider, that Russia, China, and the other countries or news services are enemies of the U.S., and I'm sorry if I gave that impression," he said.