U.S. Churches Rally Support for Foreign Assistance Reform

U.S. church bodies are urging Congress to pass a bill that supporters say will make U.S. foreign assistance programs more efficient and focused on fighting poverty.

The faith groups, brought together by Bread for the World, are also calling on millions of their constituents to urge their U.S. representatives to co-sponsor H.R. 2139, the Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act of 2009.

"[H.R. 2139] begins the process of bringing U.S. foreign-assistance programs up-to-date and ensuring that the fight against deadly poverty and disease is elevated, alongside defense and diplomacy, as a central focus of our foreign policy," explained the Episcopal Public Policy Network of The Episcopal Church in a policy alert. "While U.S. funds save millions of lives around the world each year, Congress and the President must act to maximize the impact of these programs, particularly in a time when money is tight and we are making progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a mission priority of The Episcopal Church."

Introduced on April 28 by Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Representative Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), H.R. 2139 directs the president to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy for global development, improve evaluation of development programs, and increase the transparency of U.S. foreign assistance to developing countries.

Organizations such as Bread for the World and the Episcopal Public Policy Network say too many government agencies oversee competing and overlapping programs, largely because the legislation governing foreign assistance was enacted in 1961 and has not been updated in more than 20 years.

Currently U.S. global development policies and programs are scattered across 12 departments, 25 agencies, and nearly 60 government offices.

"A global development strategy will help ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively by eliminating duplication, increasing coordination among U.S. government agencies implementing foreign aid and requiring a more robust system of monitoring and evaluation," 59 bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church noted in a letter sent this week to all members of the House.

"H.R. 2139 will also help U.S. development assistance achieve long-term sustainability by encouraging local capacity building with a focus on broad-based economic growth," they added in urging representatives to co-sponsor the bill.

H.R. 2139 is intended to be a precursor to a broader reform effort later this year that looks to make the United States more effective in reducing poverty.

In March, nearly 150 individuals and organizations signed an open letter to the president and congressional leaders calling for U.S. foreign assistance programs to be "enhanced and modernized in order to make sure that, in today's economic climate and for years to come, our development dollars are used effectively and reach the people who need help most."

"[W]e lack a global development strategy to frame and steer our efforts," they stated. "This must change – for our security, our economic prosperity, and our global leadership."

The letter was signed by organizations including Bread for the World, Church World Service, Episcopal Relief & Development, Habitat for Humanity International, Lutheran World Relief, Mercy Corps, ONE, the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society, and World Vision, among others.

More recently, a separate statement from religious bodies was released, calling for foreign assistance reform. The statement, which opens with a verse from Isaiah 58, has been signed by more than 50 faith-based organizations including American Baptist Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Islamic Society of North America, and the National Council of Jewish Women.

It lists seven achievements that should come out from foreign assistance reform including a U.S. global strategy for both immediate humanitarian assistance and long-term development as well as foreign assistance that is more transparent and more accountable.

"As faith groups committed to advocacy on reducing global poverty, many with a long history of experience in delivering relief and development aid – including as implementers of U.S. government programs – we come together to urge congressional leaders and the new U.S. administration to undertake the process of examining, evaluating, and reforming U.S. foreign-assistance programs to ensure their maximum reach in fighting poverty and meeting human need," the religious bodies stated.

According to the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, H.R. 2139 could be voted on at almost any time.

"We don't know exactly how much time we have – maybe four weeks, maybe eight weeks – but we have just a limited amount of time to get a bunch of co-sponsors ... to say that they want to support this effort to make our foreign assistance program more effective," he tells potential supporters in a video posted earlier this month.

"That will help us pass H.R. 2139, it will help move the broader process of foreign assistance reform, so we need you to take action on H.R. 2139 right now," he adds.

Potential supporters are encouraged to visit the Bread for the World website, www.bread.org, for details on how to join the foreign assistance reform effort.

Bread for the World describes itself as a collective Christian voice that urges America's decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.

The organization will be celebrating its 35th anniversary next month.