Congress has long avoided comprehensive reform of U.S. development cooperation, and 2014 will likely be no different. But there’s a good chance lawmakers will consider a number of issues that could affect international development.
Things will get off to a fast and early start as Congress seeks to hammer out spending bills — including for U.S. foreign assistance — before Jan. 15.
Here are eight issues to watch in 2014:
1. Food aid reform
Could 2014 be the year Congress decides to update decades-old U.S. food aid policy?
The U.S. system for delivering emergency and humanitarian food aid to countries in crisis is legally intertwined with the nation’s agriculture policy and legislated in five-year authorizations known as the farm bill.
That means U.S. agriculture and shipping interests have outsized influence over the way emergency food relief programs are delivered.
Farm bill conference committee negotiations have dragged on since November and a new bill could emerge early in 2014. Observers are optimistic that some measure of food aid reform, however modest, could be part of that package.
2. Electrify Africa
“Energy poverty” emerged as a high-profile issue for U.S. foreign aid in 2013, after President Barack Obama launched his Power Africa initiative during a visit to three African countries.
Electrify Africa would lend congressional support to the African energy poverty reduction effort, by granting the administration with clearance to coordinate action and resources across various deal-making agencies, and potentially by granting the Overseas Private Investment Corp. — the U.S. agency that offers debt financing for development projects — greater flexibility in terms of its investments.
3. Aid transparency and accountability
The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act failed by one vote in the last Congress. Aid experts are hoping 2014 is the year to finish the job on a piece of legislation that would make law an Obama administration vow to open data troves and require more transparent and systematic evaluation of foreign aid programs.
4. USAID organizational changes
A highly touted and high-level effort is under way to merge two USAID offices — the Office of Science and Technology and the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances — to make it easier for the agency and its partners to procure science and technology expertise and partner with social entrepreneurs.
If USAID is looking for some kind of minor congressional approval to complete its planned reorganization, the administration will likely ask Congress to make the change within a comprehensive omnibus bill to fund the entire U.S. government before Jan. 15.
5. International trade
Congress has a hard time passing trade agreements and related legislation, and that won’t change in 2014 — with some notable exceptions.
The trade promotion authority bill is expected to extend the strengthened focus on labor rights that the United States adopted in 2007, and lawmakers may even try to attach an update of the Generalized System of Preferences, the program under which the U.S. government unilaterally lowers tariffs on imports from developing countries. GSP expired in July.
Even if negotiations are successful, though, it could take a while for Congress to muster the energy to ratify the deal.
6. AGOA reauthorization
Sub-Saharan Africa’s exports of products covered by the African Growth and Opportunity Act have more than quadrupled since 2001, totaling $35 billion in 2012. But with AGOA set to expire in 2015, the debate among policymakers and within the development community about how to better the act is heating up, although legislation will not emerge until next year.
Reports show that many of the 39 countries currently eligible for AGOA aren’t making full use of the act’s preferences, so whether it needs to or will be expanded to cover more products, such as sugar and cotton, remains to be seen.
7. Emergency relief
USAID leaders have made it clear that future spending on foreign aid will increasingly be directed to fragile, conflict and disaster-prone states where many of the world’s extreme poor reside and struggle to find opportunities to climb out of poverty.
With crises emerging — or persisting — in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and elsewhere, the administration may call on Congress to authorize response measures as needed.
8. FAA overhaul
When he left Congress just over a year ago, then-Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, released his latest proposal to overhaul the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the document which created the U.S. Agency for International Development and which has served as the blueprint for U.S. foreign assistance ever since.
Berman’s rewrite sought to “establish a framework for effective, transparent, and accountable United States foreign assistance.”
Most insiders think the chance of moving a new foreign assistance act through the current U.S. Congress is effectively zero.