A local approach to solving problems with foreign aid

The system of U.S. foreign aid is broken, Seattle experts on development issues say. Now local nonprofits, businesses and educational institutions hope to have a direct impact on how it's fixed.

To start, the United States needs a national strategy to clarify the goals of foreign aid, trade policy consistent with those goals, an easier process for small businesses to participate and support for international education programs.

Those recommendations from Global Washington, a Seattle association of 120 groups working in the field of global development, were released Tuesday and discussed by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and others in a forum at Seattle University.

Cantwell said she and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray requested the recommendations last fall and will take them back to Washington, D.C., to contribute to the ongoing debate over how the U.S. should change its policy for foreign assistance.

Effective foreign aid can improve economic conditions and help fight terrorism, Cantwell said. Though the U.S. spends less than 1 percent of its federal budget on foreign aid, aid is unpopular nationally. More accountability of the funding is needed to measure and show results, she said.

Washington is home to about 200 nonprofits employing more than 3,000 people working on global-development issues in 144 countries, according to Global Washington. The issues include global health, clean water and sanitation, food security, poverty and education.

"These are some of the most basic and life-sustaining issues that demand involvement of us as a nation and certainly involve us in Washington state," Cantwell said.

Global Washington recommended that foreign aid be aligned with United Nations Millennium Development Goals, that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have autonomy from the departments of State and Defense, and that aid be based on priorities of local recipients and proportionally targeted to countries that are the poorest and most in need.

"We have the technology, we have the people and the passion. We need a structure for coordinating it and measuring the impact," said Yvonne Harrison, assistant professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University, who helped write the recommendations.

Washington state is uniquely positioned to comment, Cantwell said, with almost 5 percent of all Peace Corps volunteers, the highest percentage of any state, as well as America's most diverse ZIP code — 98118, in Seattle's Rainier Valley, where 60 different languages are spoken.

Seattle's impact on the other Washington is already being felt in the number of people with positions in the Obama administration, including Rajiv Shah, former Gates Foundation agricultural-development director and now head of USAID; former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, now commerce secretary; and Travis Sullivan, a former Boeing executive who is now Locke's chief policy adviser.

Maura O'Neill, Cantwell's former chief of staff, now works under Shah as chief innovation officer at USAID and spoke at the Seattle event.

"My role is to be on the hunt for new breakthrough ideas and put innovative partnerships together," she said.

One of them was a partnership USAID recently announced with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop mobile banking in Haiti. O'Neill said the project may be expanded globally.

Another is a USAID partnership with Coca-Cola to connect Haiti's mango growers to the drink maker's supply chain to provide juice for drinks under the Odwalla brand, she said.

USAID is working with U.S. companies in Indonesia, the third-largest carbon emitter in the world, to develop new business models to reduce deforestation for palm-oil production.