Civic Education Project and The New Foreign Aid


From the Civic Education Project Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 2, Summer 1995

One of the hot topics of the current political season in Washington is the future of U.S. government-funded assistance to reform efforts in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. With Republicans calling for deep cuts in foreign aid budgets and for the elimination of USAID and USIA as independent agencies, many of the consulting firms and non-profit organizations that depend heavily on U.S. government funding have been watching nervously and lobbying vigorously to preserve their share of the foreign aid budget.

Although U.S. government funding (in the form of a grant from the Eurasia Foundation) provides less than 10% of CEP's annual budget, we have taken an active role in the debate on the future of U.S. foreign assistance. CEP staff, in numerous meetings with Congressional staff, have focused in particular on the vital role of private voluntary organizations as instruments of U.S. foreign assistance. CEP's ability to deliver well-targeted assistance to educational reform at low cost and with minimal overhead offers a welcome contrast, in the eyes of many on the Hill, to the high-overhead consulting contracts that are all too common in U.S. foreign aid programs. CEP has even been mentioned in recent Congressional hearings on foreign aid appropriations as an example of the value of low-cost approaches to assistance, particularly those that rely on volunteers.

CEP's involvement in the debate on the effectiveness of US assistance to East European transition predates, however, the recent flurry of Congressional activity. Over a year ago, CEP's study of book and journal donations for the Mellon Foundation warned that, all too often, assistance programs focus more on outputs than on impact. The study demonstrated how book and journal donation programs, while impressive in the aggregate numbers of items delivered, were often falling short in the vital task of assuring that the materials donated were accessible to, and properly targeted to the needs of intended end-users.

Recently, most of the attention in the foreign aid debate has been focused on the reorganization legislation designed to fold USAID and USIA into the State Department, and on speculation as to whether President Clinton will indeed veto such legislation if it passes both houses of Congress. At the same time, the appropriations committees have been hashing out how to allocate a shrinking foreign aid budget. Uncertainty abounds. Even if the foreign aid reorganization bill survives an anticipated presidential veto, the reorganization itself would take a year or more.Yet, whatever amount of funding remains for assistance to reform in Eastern Europe and the NIS, and whatever government entity has responsibility for spending that money, the emphasis on maximizing "impact per dollar" and on tapping the American volunteer spirit will persist. In that sense, CEP remains well-positioned to serve as a model of the "new foreign aid".