Obama to announce new foreign-aid policy

President Barack Obama is pleading for "a new era of engagement" on world problems, telling the United Nations the United States shouldn't pursue a go-it-alone stance. It is his first speech to world leaders at the U.N. Video by AP
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 11:07 PM

President Obama will roll out his long-awaited policy on foreign aid Wednesday, pledging to target U.S. assistance at a select group of countries to help transform them into the next generation of emerging economies, officials said.

The policy, to be announced at the United Nations, comes after a yearlong battle between the State Department and White House over how to improve an inefficient overseas aid system. In the end, each side seemed to get something, with the White House increasing its role in coordinating U.S. assistance programs and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton maintaining key decision-making powers.

The new approach portrays aid as a central part of U.S. national-security and economic strategies, which could help convince Americans who have suffered through a severe recession that it's still worthwhile to provide billions to poor nations.

But officials say they are also seeking to bring a new coherence to overseas development, currently handled by about two dozen federal departments and agencies. Their goal is to make a major push to propel the economies of promising countries.

"What we'd like to do is focus selectively on a subset of countries, or regions, subregions, and try and make sure all our development resources . . . are being applied in those countries in a way to maximize economic growth," said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity before Obama's speech at the United Nations.

The countries would also get assistance with trade policy and technological innovation, he said.

Aid experts welcomed the new policy framework, but several said the lack of detail made it difficult to assess.

"How do we take what's being said and make it real? What kind of fights are going to result from that, as people see their interests affected?" asked one congressional aide familiar with the subject who was not authorized to comment on the record.

In developing the new policy, there was tension over how much control the State Department would continue to exert over the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to people familiar with the discussions. Clinton has defended the department's relationship with USAID, arguing development and diplomacy are mutually reinforcing.

The White House has decided to set up a deputies' committee that will coordinate aid policy across the government, officials said, although USAID's director, Rajiv Shah, will continue to report to Clinton. State Department officials appear likely to keep overseeing aid programs such as the Haiti earthquake response.

Obama came to office pledging to boost aid and improve the U.S. foreign-assistance program, which has been called wasteful and disorganized by non-governmental groups and U.S. lawmakers. He has been criticized for moving slowly. USAID went without a director for the first year of the administration because of vetting issues and internal disputes. Many of the agency's top jobs are still empty.

Still, Obama will probably be greeted warmly at the United Nations. He has pledged greater U.S. adherence to the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight U.N. objectives aimed at dramatically reducing hunger and poverty by 2015. He has also led an international effort to raise billions of dollars to help poor farmers feed their countries.

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