An update on US aid legislation

Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong. In our latest policy brief, on the topic of aid legislation, we highlighted several positive aspects of the proposed US Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, but were somewhat pessimistic about its chances of being approved by Congress before this legislative term concludes at the end of 2016. After all, this was the third attempt to introduce the legislation, and at the time of writing estimated it had only a 19% chance of passing. But on July 5 – less than two weeks after we published the policy brief – the bill received the thumbs up from the Senate (a companion bill had already passed the House of Representatives), and is now on its way to President Obama’s desk for signing.

As we discuss in the brief and accompanying blog, while the Act is far from perfect, it’s encouraging to see another piece of aid legislation receive approval, and particularly one which specifically emphasises transparency and includes stipulations regarding rigorous evaluation and mechanisms to support public accountability.

Even more surprising, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act wasn’t the only piece of aid-related legislation to receive attention from American lawmakers last week: on July 6, the Global Food Security Act of 2016 was also passed. This act principally requires the President to develop and implement a coordinated food security strategy (to be submitted to Congress by October 1 this year), which is to be supported by enhanced monitoring and evaluation practices similar to those set out in the Transparency and Accountability Act.

Perhaps its most noteworthy contribution, however, is to amend the US’s flagship piece of aid legislation, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, to authorise the President “to make available emergency food assistance… acquired through local or regional procurement, to meet emergency food needs arising from manmade and natural disasters.” This sounds simple but it’s a significant shift – historically, the procurement of US food aid has been closely tied to the American agricultural industry. (US aid campaigners nevertheless caution that the Global Food Security Act, while a step in the right direction, should not be mistaken for more comprehensive food aid reform).

Over the coming months and years it will be interesting to observe the real impact of these two pieces of legislation on the shape of US aid (assuming that both are shortly signed by President Obama and come into force). The latter seems to have received with far more fanfare – including a statement from the President himself, as well as a press release from USAID and a blog from National Security Advisor Susan Rice, for example – but the former will likely to have a more widely sweeping effect across America’s aid architecture.

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Camilla Burkot

Camilla Burkot was a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre, and Editor of the Devpolicy Blog, from 2015 to 2017. She has a background in social anthropology and holds a Master of Public Health from Columbia University, and has field experience in Eastern and Southern Africa, and PNG. She now works for the Burnet Institute.

Robin Davies

Robin Davies is an Honorary Professor at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy and an editor of the Devpolicy Blog. He headed the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security and later the Global Health Division at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from 2017 until early 2023 and worked in senior roles at AusAID until 2012, with postings in Paris and Jakarta. From 2013 to 2017, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.

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