Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Can Obama reform the aid business?

US leader proposes far-reaching changes in providing aid to poor countries.

When USAID was independent, it functioned robustly. It could project soft power for the United States in ways that were not easily available to ambassadors and embassies.

Obama’s speech was long on good ideas and short on details. Nowhere in the speech did he declare that all American assistance would now be in the form of outright grants rather than loans. That is a reform of aid practice that has long been advocated in order to reduce dependence and strengthen true partnerships between donors and recipients.

It is also important to make grants that stipulate deliverables and that hold receiving countries accountable. If Washington intends to improve a health system rather than simply provide vaccines or anti-retroviral medicines, it and the host country must together specify outcomes. Those outcomes can be determined objectively and used to determine whether or not to renew the grant.

If Washington can really reform global aid practices, the vulnerable and the deprived throughout the world will benefit enormously. But the task is huge. To follow Obama’s lead will mean assisting only countries with honest leaders and honest governments, and focusing almost exclusively on measurable results.

Can we really afford to do what is right?

Robert Rotberg was director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at the Harvard Kennedy School and president of the World Peace Foundation until mid-2010.