Foolishness & Foreign Aid

Richard Tren & Philip Coticelli | 25 Apr 2008
New York Post
Today is World Malaria Day; all three presidential candidates will likely mark the occasion with fresh promises on foreign aid, malaria and poverty. Problem is, the "solutions" will mostly boil down to spending more money with less oversight - ignoring a vital difference between the UN's sorry record and recent US experience.

If blank-check foreign aid worked, poverty would already be history. Americans should ask how the candidates will ensure more money is more wisely spent.

Ironically, Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain all co-sponsored Sen. Tom Coburn's 2006 Federal Funding and Accountability Act (FFAT). That law requires the online and "full disclosure of all entities or organizations receiving federal funds." It will cover UN agencies like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria starting this October.

The goal is transparency - to ensure that public agencies are making the best use of limited public resources.

Yet there isn't a trace of this in the Democrats' promises to vastly increase US funding for all global anti-poverty programs, including the Global Fund. That agency expects $1.65 billion from US taxpayers next year - and, if the new HIV/AIDS bill churning through Congress is any guide, the cash will come with few oversight restrictions.

Yet unmonitored aid will only exacerbate problems in poor countries.

Consider efforts to fight malaria, which kills more than 1 million people a year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Until three years ago, USAID was running scattered and ineffective malaria-control programs. When Sen. Coburn started investigating USAID's purchase of outdated antimalarial drugs, the agency reformed. Under the new President's Malaria Initiative, funding ramped up - but oversight also improved critically. Now USAID posts detailed assessments, budgets, contracts and progress reports on the Web - and fights malaria effectively in 15 African countries.

By contrast, UN agencies are protected from scrutiny. They publish few details on their programs and measure progress by money spent, not lives saved.

The lesson: Strong oversight drives evidence-based programs. Forcing bureaucrats to explain how taxpayers' money is spent, and insisting on accurate measurement of success, has turned the US into a global leader in malaria control.

Standards also need to be higher for African governments - only Botswana has made good on their 2001 promise to spend 15 percent of their own national budgets on health care. Many aren't even close.

The African Union estimates that the continent loses nearly $150 billion a year to corruption - a quarter of Africa's revenues. How can America keep shoveling money out the door and ignoring the woeful lack of leadership from the political elite in poor countries?

Unlike the Democrats, McCain shares Coburn's concern for fiscal responsibility. But his open-ended promises to "eradicate malaria in Africa" are unfocused - will they amount to dropping dollars on the usual suspects? He needs to take a hard look at why US malaria-control aid works.

Blank-check foreign aid won't end poverty. Making the best use of the money we already spend abroad through the FFAT and similar mechanisms will help. Tightening the screws on foreign aid and demanding stronger African leadership is a critical first step.