Attaching Strings to Foreign Aid Often Proves IneffectiveBy Sara Sorcher | Sunday, July 22, 2012 | 12:07 p.m. Photo: AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was disappointed when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waived the conditions he had put on the $1.3 billion package of military aid to Egypt. Cairo had released the American pro-democracy workers it detained for weeks, but the military council’s reluctance to transfer power and its continued crackdown on civil society did not bode well for the transition to democracy.
The chairman of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee said that Clinton’s March decision to allow aid to flow despite unfulfilled conditions requiring respect for human rights and democratic freedoms sent a “contradictory message” to Egypt. Leahy tightened the conditions in next year’s appropriations bill.
As the Arab Spring upended long-held assumptions about the Middle East, Congress has been trying to influence U.S. foreign policy by layering new conditions on traditional aid packages. Does it work?
Both the Obama administration and Congress had the same general objective in Egypt: Let the democratic transition proceed smoothly, and give U.S. aid to support that goal. But new terms on the virtually sacrosanct aid package sparked a public discussion about the future of the broader assistance relationship when Egypt cracked down on prominent Washington-based pro-democracy organizations. Having aid on the table was successful, in that Egypt finally did allow the American NGO workers to leave. It was arguably unsuccessful when Cairo continued its broader crackdown on civil society, dissolved parliament, and stripped the civilian presidency of many powers after it understood the threat to cut off aid was hollow. The U.S. lost much of its leverage with the Egyptian military, and it lost credibility with Egyptian activists looking to Washington for support.
Conditionality “is a gun with one bullet in it,” said Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The ideal scenario is that the conditions serve as effective leverage, and the government in question meets the conditions. “If that doesn’t happen, at a certain point, the administration has to bite the bullet and impose the cutoff or waive the conditions. In either case, the leverage is gone, because the threat is the effective leverage.”
With even tougher conditions looking likely this year, the U.S. may be in a similarly tough spot with Egypt. Making the military council believe that Washington will actually follow through on its threats will be much more difficult.
The conditions are likely to become a test in other places, too. The bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee stipulates that Bahrain, where the Sunni regime has cracked down on protests led by the Shiite majority, cannot receive any funds next year for items that could be used for crowd-control purposes until Clinton declares it has met certain conditions. In April, the Obama administration overruled a key House lawmaker’s hold on Palestinian aid amid concerns about a bid for membership at the United Nations absent a peace agreement with Israel. The House Appropriations Committee now says that Palestinians will lose scheduled economic-support funds if they obtain membership at any other U.N. agency. And just days after Clinton pledged to continue economic assistance to Afghanistan, lawmakers called on the administration to ensure that future aid is contingent on Kabul undertaking successful reforms.
“You will tend to see Congress layering more conditions on how money can be spent when they have concerns about administration strategy,” Wittes noted. Foreign aid in general is less popular with the American public in a tough budget environment. “So when times are tight like they are now, it’s not surprising you would see increased scrutiny of foreign aid by members of Congress and increased conditionality.”
Congressional conditions can be designed to pressure the administration into enacting what lawmakers see as the right policies—or even give the executive branch an opportunity to invoke the conditions in a type of “good cop/bad cop” routine. They are also meant to inflict some discomfort if the executive branch decides to sidestep them by using the national-security waiver, said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who chaired the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. “Conditionality should be used sparingly by Congress, but it’s certainly a legitimate tool,” Kolbe said.
But “we have to recognize that too often the [foreign-aid] money does not achieve the results we want,” Leahy told the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition last week. “We often do not hold foreign governments accountable when they fail to perform.”
The Obama administration is now pushing a $770 billion Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund to respond to countries’ needs and to encourage reform. The Senate committee liked the idea and gave it $1 billion; the House gave it zero. Some members, such as Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, called it a “slush fund” that could skirt congressional oversight.
U.S. funds can create an undue sense of expectations or even entitlement within governments, Wittes said, and rather than using foreign aid as a stick to coerce behavior, the incentive fund is meant to communicate “there is a pot of money out there; the more you do, the more opportunity [to access it]…. It’s not a one-shot deal.”