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Phoenix from the Ashes—Reform Efforts on the Foreign Assistance Act

In a world as technologically advanced and reliant as ours, one would expect adaptation to be a staple component of every individual’s mindset. And yet, there are those in the political sphere who have oftentimes demonstrated their desire to subvert various transformative trends, technological or otherwise. One particularly notable trend concerns the reform efforts on the Foreign Assistance Act, a movement to which George Ingram has dedicated a significant portion of his career.

USAID Visual Identity with Logo and Brandmark (2004) U.S. Government | Wikimedia
USAID Visual Identity with Logo and Brandmark (2004) U.S. Government | Wikimedia

In his earlier experiences, Ingram witnessed such attempts stymied to a certain degree at multiple stages of implementation, whether it be from the House of Representatives to the presidential administration. While we should certainly not discredit the achievements made as a result of these initial initiatives, it is hard to deny that these efforts fully achieved the goals they had set out to realize.

And yet, we see in this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history that such obstacles have not stopped Ingram from continually pursuing this ideal of reform. Later on in his career, Ingram became a crucial figure in the creation of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), an organization that strives to ensure efficiency of fund allocation in foreign assistance. Through his work, he not only was successful in drawing political attention to the need for rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act, but he also devoted more energy towards the notion of greater coherence and cooperation on existing fronts. In particular, he has advocated for greater use of the private sector by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to maximise the balance of its status between project manager and grant provider. Therefore, in order for efforts in foreign assistance aid to find new life in the modern day, it will be important for policy makers to keep two different approaches in mind: structurally revamping the system, and optimizing the existing infrastructure.

Ingram joined USAID in 1973, during which time he worked for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Citizens Democracy Corps, and as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia. Ending his career with USAID in 2001, Ingram continued his work in D.C., where—in addition to his role with the MFAN—he was president of the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign (USGLC) and worked at the Academy for Educational Development (AED).

George Ingram’s interview was conducted by Ann Van Dusen on December 10, 2018.

Read George Ingram’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by: Will Shao

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“Now, what is badly needed is a new basic act to clean up all the garbage and confusion and contradictory provisions that are in the law today.”

Reform Round One: So, the sequence is the following: in ’88, Lee Hamilton—the ranking Democrat on the committee—met with Chairman Dante Fascell, and Lee Hamilton said, “Mr. Chairman, what are we going to do about the Foreign Assistance Act?” At that point, the Foreign Assistance Act was roughly 600 pages, almost 30 years old, Cold War focused, and out of date. The Chairman says, “Lee, you’re going to head up a task force to figure out what to do about it.” So, Lee Hamilton and the ranking Republican, Ben Gilman, headed up this small member task force, and I was designated as the lead staff person. Margaret Goodman worked on it, as did Richard Blue, who was seconded from AID for a year and we had somebody from a GAO working with us. We did a yearlong review of foreign aid. We didn’t hold hearings, because hearings can be confrontational; in hearings, there are grand policy makers sitting high up on the dais and poor witnesses being bombarded with questions. We therefore organized round-table discussions to have both the members and the witnesses at the same level around a big table. They were open to the public; we published the transcripts. Larry Knowles at CRS wrote a bunch of background papers for us. We invited written submissions from a host of people, like academics and others such as NGOs, and published all of that. What we ended up doing at the end of the day is turning our guns on Congress rather than the administration and saying, “You know, we’re not sure how to fix whatever is wrong in the administration, but we know what’s wrong up here and it’s earmarks: it’s 33 objectives in the foreign assistance act; it’s 75 priorities.” So we published a little report and then Dante Fascell and Lee Hamilton said,” Write the bill.” So we spent a number of months writing a new Foreign Assistance Act.

Q: This would be 1990, ’91, right?

INGRAM: It was ’89… We drafted a new Foreign Assistance Act and took it to the committee. The committee did not report it earmark-free, as Dante Fascell and Lee Hamilton were the only two members who really bought into that concept. We got it through the House, again with a few more amendments, policy statements and earmarks, but the Senate never took it up.

Q: Okay. So how would you characterize what the House passed compared with what you had had before? Was it more focused on what foreign aid priorities should be? Or it was cleaner just because you got fewer earmarks?—

INGRAM: It was messier, less clearly focused. What we drafted and took to the committee was maybe a 100 page bill, with four or five overarching objectives. From our point of view, it was rationally structured. Things fit together, and we eliminated a lot of the barnacles. If you look at section 620 of the Foreign Assistance Act, it went from A to Z on subsections setting forth various restrictions on assistance, and we boiled them down to the few that really were politically important—no aid to communist countries, no aid to countries that expropriate U.S. property…. We put in some requirements on accountability such as undertaking more evaluation. Then, when it got to the committee, people piled on amendments, and then on the House floor more such provisions were adopted.

Q: But it wasn’t back to where it had been before you started.

INGRAM: By the time you got off the floor it was maybe a 200 page bill, not the 600 page act. So it was cleaner than what’s in the law. One problem was the Bush administration never really understood or trusted what we were up to.

Q: Oh. So even though you had someone delegated from the AID, the administration didn’t engage—

INGRAM: They didn’t engage politically. They did substantively; down the staff line they would engage with us on specific issues. But not at a political high-policy level. The Republicans on the committee never really bought into the effort, and we failed to get the Senate’s attention. Then the Clinton administration tried the same thing. Under Secretary of State Cliff Wharton led a study his first year, and they proposed a new piece of legislation for foreign assistance that didn’t get through the House or the Senate. Then, when Howard Berman became chairman of the committee in 2008, I went to see him and said, “You know, you really should rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act.” He said, “Okay.” After that, he gave me credit or blame for launching the effort. I never was sure which was his sentiment! Diana Ohlbaum led a three year consultative process on drafting a new law, which was finally completed and introduced just about the time he was defeated for Congress. Gerry Connolly has picked up the effort. But there’s never been any political momentum behind it.

Q: Right. So the last full foreign aid bill was ’85.

INGRAM: ’85. There is no need for a foreign aid bill every year, even every two years, but it does need to be periodically updated. Now, what is badly needed is a new basic act to clean up all the garbage and confusion and contradictory provisions that are in the law today.

Q: Right. Because once they’re in, it’s hard to get them out.

INGRAM: I don’t think the Congress realizes that the Foreign Assistance Act allows the administration to do anything it wants. There’s nothing the law doesn’t authorize. So the administration can just pick and choose what it wants to do.

Q: And is it your impression that they do?

INGRAM: I don’t think they pay much attention to it.

Q: Because my sense is with or without a new foreign assistance act, AID is pretty careful not to offend the hill.

INGRAM: They’re very careful. They were very careful with the Freedom Support Act, which gave them “notwithstanding authority” to do anything they wanted to in that region. They were very judicious in using that authority because they knew if they used it wrong, it would be taken away.

“At that Wye plantation meeting, we all agreed to a pretty ambitious agenda, including an independent Department of Development and a rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act.”

Front View of Wye House, American Plantation (post 1933) Historic American Buildings Survey | Wikimedia
Front View of Wye House, American Plantation (post 1933) Historic American Buildings Survey | Wikimedia

An Ambitious Advocate: Beginning early-mid 2000s, Hewlett was funding bits and pieces of aid reform work around Washington. They got the notion, “If we could bring these groups together and they could speak with one voice, it would be more powerful.” So, like the way they set up the Basic Education Coalition, they said, “If you guys come together, we’ll fund you.” And in some ways, they strong armed Gayle Smith at CAP (the Center for American Progress) and Steve Radelet at CGD (Center for Global Development) and asked them to set this up. Sixteen of us met over a weekend at the Wye plantation to see if we could agree to a common agenda to engage in joint advocacy and policy development.

Q: Right. And was it advocacy again for funding?

INGRAM: No, funding was not central to the MFAN agenda. It was about the effectiveness of assistance; it was about policy and how you run programs. It was, “Okay, the funding is there, let’s make sure it’s well used.” That’s what it was about. And at that point, I had been independently—not with Hewlett support—working on aid reform.

Q: With someone else, or just on your own?

INGRAM: Well, actually, Bob Chase, Bill Reese, Tom Fox, and I would get together for lunch about three times a year. At a couple of those lunches, we started talking about aid reform and got the idea of taking our ideas to one of the think tanks. Bill Reese and I put together a two page concept paper and he took it to the Council on Foreign Relations. I took it to Lael Brainard at Brookings and to Patrick Cronin at CSIS. The latter two agreed to do a joint study.

Q: Brookings and CSIS?

INGRAM: Yes. They took it on, and Lael published a compendium book Security By Other Means.

Q: This was 2004 or 2005?

INGRAM: Yeah, that’s about right, probably 2006/7. So that’s how I got involved. Lael put together a “commission.” A few of us would come together to opine and review the chapters that were written by other people.

. . .

INGRAM: MFAN came later. At that Wye plantation meeting, we all agreed to a pretty ambitious agenda, including an independent Department of Development and a rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act. Hewlett agreed to fund what we named the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Group. With Gayle and Steve as co-chairs, we hired a staff that was headquartered at GPG (the Glover Park Group), with the funding coming through Bread for the World. So MFAN has never been an independent, separate organization; it’s not a 501(c)(3). We’ve always had a financial fiduciary through an established organization. First it was Bread for the World, and now it’s the New Venture Fund. That’s the business of the New Venture Fund: it is the fiduciary agent for some 400 hundred small organizations like ours.

. . .

INGRAM: We started by recommending a robust and independent USAID at the cabinet level. Also, a rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act, a global development strategy, and stronger accountability.

Q: Right. And from that it has narrowed a bit in its scope.

INGRAM: MFAN has narrowed its scope very much since then. On day two or three we got nowhere with an independent department. Howard Berman picked up on rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act and tried that.

Q: Were you responsible for getting his attention on the rewrite?

INGRAM: You could say that, and he has said as much. The Obama administration didn’t write a global development strategy, but they wrote a presidential determination on development, which was the first comprehensive policy statement and guidance on development. So that’s sort of half-way to our strategy.

Q: Right. Agency wide or government wide?

INGRAM: Government wide. Within the first couple of years, we transitioned from a robust, ideal agenda, to be much more pragmatic on what we can accomplish and what we can do. The agenda became focused on advancing local ownership, accountability and evaluation transparency. Those have become the bedrock of MFAN. We have loaned our name and support to food aid reform, because that’s so important for effectiveness. But other organizations really have the expertise and lead on that and it was a waste of our time to pretend to take the lead. But we do add our voice to it.

Q: But MFAN has an advocacy focus, right? It’s not a policy think tank.

INGRAM: It’s a combination; it’s interesting, particularly the last three or four years. When Trump got elected, like every other similar organization in town, in the first six weeks we had an emergency board meeting. What the hell are we going to do? Within three months, with the existential threat to AID, we said, “We’ve got to put an alternative out there.” So we developed our own alternative, like a think tank would do. We put out a list of principles that should guide any reorganization. We put out a reorganization plan that returned to our more radical origins.

That led to four other plans being put out. Then we led those groups to come together behind a consensus. So in all of that process, it was policy development and advocacy, in order to provide the administration and the congress alternatives to folding AID into the State Department.

And we’ve consistently focused on local ownership—remember when they came out with the metric that 30% of our funding is to go to local NGOs—our reaction was, “Well, that’s a pretty crude, arbitrary metric.” We spent three or four months brainstorming among our membership on what qualitative metrics might be. We shared those as they were being developed with people at AID. We published those, and finally our partners at AID threw up their hands and said, “We’re going to work from what you guys did.” That’s happened three or four times, where MFAN has become a policy development entity that then advocates for that policy.

“I think AID could be more efficient in its management if it realized that there are certain areas where it can just give grants. AID does not have to manage those projects.”

A Remodelled Prediction: I give him a lot of credit for putting in charge of the reform process one of his two senior political appointees: Jim Richardson, who has run this in a very open, collaborative fashion with career USAID staff. They have consulted on the outside; they claim they’ve read everything that we’ve written; they’ve taken ideas inside and outside the building, and I think put together a very rational plan. If anything, they have outdone those of us who have been sitting on the outside opining. They have taken those ideas and made them better.

Q: So how will AID look different if this goes through? Or how will it function differently?

INGRAM: You will have consolidation and some greater coherence among important functions. You’ll have budget and policy together for the first time since Alex Shakow was the head of PPC (Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination). You will have this conglomeration of humanitarian/resilience/fragility work, so that maybe you can move more seamlessly from humanitarian to development. They will tell you that this organizational chart is only 20% of what they are trying to do. Equally, if not more important, is the procurement process reform. Now basically what they’ve done, and this is my interpretation, is looked at the procurement process and said, “Hmm, there’s really not anything new out there. How do we make the current procurement process work better? How can we operate more as a partner? How can we be more agile, more adaptive? And how can we move decision making to the field?” They have an intent to move decision making to the field. We haven’t seen how that’s going to happen.

Q: Or even what it means.

INGRAM: That’s right, or what it means. There is a direction they haven’t gone in, I haven’t really had this conversation with them and you can respond to this better than anybody because you know the inside better than I do. There are certain things AID does that are just routine. This is true in a lot of humanitarian work. You have to procure so many tents, and food, and whatnot, and there are set processes for doing that. Same with some of the health services that we provide, they’ve just established ways to do that. In other areas, and particularly in fragile situations, we are involved with problems in civil society—in governance—that we don’t really have the answers to or a set way to approach. And rather than write prescriptive RFPs (request for proposals) and RFAs (request for applications), they need to have one page, “We’ve got to take that hill over there, you tell us how to take it. And we’ve got this much budget.” Let the bidders be more creative, and then hold them accountable for what they are proposing to do. They are talking about that in a very modest way.

Q: Right.

INGRAM: There are other areas where there are organizations out there doing very good things. This is what, in my recollection, AID did 40 years ago. They’re out there doing something and AID says, “Here’s some more money to go do it in these three additional locations.”

Q: That was the nature of grants.

INGRAM: Exactly. I think AID could be more efficient in its management if it realized that there are certain areas where it can just give grants. AID does not have to manage those projects.

Q: Right. So it comes back to the accountability issue and do you have accountability systems that would give congress, or the auditors, or whomever, confidence.

INGRAM: It also comes back to the culture in AID. Does it all have to be invented here?

Q: Right. That’s true. Absolutely that’s true. So you need a new cadre of staff too or at least different training.

INGRAM: Well, in some ways they’re talking about that. Like every administration ever since I’ve been around, they want to do more with the private sector. For me that goes back all the way back to when Reagan got elected, his administration said it was going to do more with the private sector in foreign aid.

Q: Right.

INGRAM: When I looked at it back then, I found out AID was already working with the private sector.

Q: Right, exactly, thank you very much.

INGRAM: So, once more AID leaders are talking about having to have more private sector savvy staff.


BA in Political Science and International Affairs, University of North Carolina 1962–1966
MA in International Economics, Johns Hopkins SAIS 1966–1968
PHD in International Political Economics, University of Michigan 1968–1973
Joined USAID 1973
Washington, D.C.—House Committee on Foreign Affairs 1973–1995
Washington, D.C.—U.S. Global Leadership Campaign (USGLC) President 2001–2016
Washington, D.C.—Academy for Education Development (AED) 2001–2011