With Somalia, exploring the leadership questions of U.S. foreign aid


The drought and famine in the horn of Africa has killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to U.S. estimates. (Jerome Delay/AP)

As part of a weekly roundtable feature, On Leadership invited Senator John Kerry, Professor Astier M. Almedom of Tufts University’s The Fletcher School, Share Our Strength Founder Bill Shore, Professor Stuart Diamond of the University of Pennsylvania’s The Wharton School, and Executives Without Borders CEO Robert Goodwin to explore the leadership questions surrounding U.S. foreign and humanitarian aid, particularly in light of the famine in Somalia.

The following are highlights from the five oped pieces, which you can read in full by following the links.

Sen. Kerry focused on the imperative for political leaders to defend U.S. investment in foreign aid:

At this time of budget crisis, a United States senator defending foreign aid might well be advised to get examined by a political consultant if not a mental health professional. But right now it’s more urgent than ever that those of us who believe in robust American leadership step up and articulate the dangers of American retrenchment. Many question whether we can afford foreign aid and development investments, but the reality – however hard to swallow – is that we can’t afford not to. (Continue reading: “Amid budget crisis, a defense of foreign aid”)

Professor Astier M. Almedom, of Tufts University, says the main problem we face in addressing humanitarian crises like Somalia is leadership fatigue:

There’s a narrative that goes something like this: Emotive media images and tired tales of famine-causing drought in Somalia have created “compassion fatigue,” a type of onlooker’s paralysis that dulls the fury and utter indignation that would otherwise motivate action.

That’s an insult, particularly with reference to the American public. ...The causes and consequences of hunger are complex, compound and context-specific—but the lack of solutions, whether here or in Somalia, isn’t the result of a dispassionate public. It’s a failure of leadership. (Continue reading: “With famine in Somalia, a case of leadership (not compassion) fatigue”)

Bill Shore, of Share of Strength, wrote about the chronic political leadership failure we see with regard to humanitarian aid:

Humanitarian organizations have become skilled in the art of moving individuals to contribute in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, tsunami or famine. But the greater need is for national leaders willing to use some political capital to marshal support for the long-term efforts that might prevent disaster in the first place. It is our political leaders, not our nongovernmental organizations, that are in the best position to educate citizens on the relationship between this long-term development and our economic and national security interests. (Continue reading: “A famine in Somalia, and a chronic political failure on humanitarian aid”)

Wharton School Professor Stuart Diamond explored the need to apply business-like assessments to aid efforts:

It’s easy to criticize the U.S. foreign aid program these days as a waste of money in a time of budget deficits and needs at home. It’s easier yet amid reports of corruption, non-cooperation and harboring of enemies by recipient countries. ...What is harder, however, is to summon skill and focus to differentiate what works and what doesn’t, to eliminate the bad investments and keep the good ones. Clearly, this is not happening. A main reason is insufficient use of business and persuasion skills. In a sense, aid proponents have brought problems on themselves either by not making the case or by thinking they shouldn’t have to. (Continue reading: “U.S. foreign aid: Business skills needed”)

Finally, Robert Goodwin of Executives Without Borders laid out a new framework leaders should adapt for aid implementation:

What we see in America is an aid dichotomy: an ardent individual generosity, and yet so little public support for foreign aid. ...A new framework is needed to pull the pieces together, and create a strategy that uses foreign aid as a catalyst to leverage all aspects of national power.  The current $50 billion of U.S. aid money can do great things, but can do even more when it helps bring together an even larger framework for private investment and giving. (Continue reading: “A new strategy for solving America’s foreign aid problem”)

To read the full roundtable:

Sen. John Kerry: Amid budget crisis, a defense of foreign aid

Astier M. Almedom: With famine in Somalia, a case of leadership (not compassion) fatigue

Bill Shore: A famine in Somalia, and a chronic political failure on humanitarian aid

Stuart Diamond: U.S. foreign aid: Business skills needed

Robert Goodwin: A new strategy for solving America’s foreign aid problem

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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