The Foreign Service Journal - March 2018

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2018 15 LETTERS-PLUS “When Criticism Falls on Deaf Ears: The Case of U.S. Foreign Aid”— Responses Tom Dichter’s article in the November 2017 Foreign Service Journal provides a usefully provocative summary of years of criticism of foreign aid. It saves newcom- ers to the subject from reading decades of critiques; and for those of us with a lifetime in development work, it offers an exercise in nostalgia—there is very little bad that anyone can say about foreign aid and its implementers which we haven’t thought ourselves at one point or another. The article suffers, however, from a number of shortcomings: It begins with a false premise—that criticism of foreign assistance has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, development agen- cies like USAID and the World Bank have wrestled with relentless criticism since their founding. And because the criti- cism often has come from those with the power of the purse—the public and Con- gress—their programs have undergone constant reinvention. Dichter recognizes this himself in faulting what he describes as “the rise and fall of the next new big idea, fad or buzzword.” He implies that shifts in foreign aid’s approaches or emphasis signal the inability of foreign aid workers to get development right. He is right that themes have indeed moved frequently— from national security to basic human needs, new directions to private sector development, and from democracy and open markets to stabilization and income inequality. But rather than failure, these changes more accurately reflect political real- ity—changes in public, presidential and congressional interests and understand- ing; evolving knowledge; and changing circumstances. They demonstrate the acute sensitivity of development practi- tioners to criticism and their remarkable flexibility in absorbing the whiplash of political winds in charting a long-term strategy. Defining the Issue The article’s overriding weakness is its failure to actually define what it’s talk- ing about. What does the author really mean by “foreign assistance”? The term can encompass everything from foreign military sales, grants for village water supply and loans for farmers to food aid, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, investment credit and infrastruc- ture grants. Or it can refer to the implementing agencies—the Peace Corps, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the departments of State and Defense, the World Bank and United Nations agen- cies—or their partners, including non- governmental organizations like CARE and Save the Children or development consulting firms. Without a definition of the types of assistance, the agencies and instru- ments for their delivery and, perhaps most importantly, without describing the objectives sought, statements about success or failure of foreign aid lack grounding. Foreign aid has multiple objectives. It can be used for national security, as it was throughout the Cold War, or for political objectives, as it is today in countering violent extremism. It can promote economic growth, commerce, trade and investment; help refugees; sup- port recovery after disasters; or encour- age cooperation on cross-border issues, transnational crime, infectious disease and environmental protection. Until you’ve laid out the wide range of objectives assigned foreign aid over the years by politicians, policymakers and the public, it doesn’t make sense to talk about its success or failure. The article’s discussion of the nature of the business of foreign assistance also misses the mark. The growth of profes- Good Points Nearly Lost Among Generalities BY DESA I X “ TERRY ” MYERS