Congressman stands firm in commitment to foreign assistance, stresses importance of “long view”

January 30, 2020
Flyer for the Governance for Good event with Congressman Ami Bera.

Considering the escalating challenges for development, humanitarian and foreign aid organizations as it relates to domestic government funding challenges, Congressman Ami Bera still called himself a “constant optimist” as he looks toward the future role of American NGOs abroad.

At an event on January 15 at the Microsoft Policy and Innovation Center in Washington, D.C., Congressman Ami Bera sat down with Devex Senior Reporter Adva Saldinger to discuss the upcoming challenges and opportunities for the global development community in 2020 and beyond. Pact underwrote the “Governance for Good” event, which focused on foreign aid, and kicked off with a reminder from Bre Jefferson, Pact’s Vice President of Business Development, that “foreign assistance is just a good investment.”  

Bera, a Democrat representing the Sacramento, C.A. area in the House of Representatives since 2012, is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and was recently named Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation. An Indian-American who began his career as a medical doctor, Congressman Bera is a strong supporter of global health and foreign aid programming.

On the morning of this event, the U.S. House of Representatives delivered their Articles of Impeachment for the President to the United States Senate. Taking this historic event into account, Congressman Bera came out early to point out he believed Congress could balance their obligations to their constituents while fulfilling their constitutional duties. It will help, he said, to work hard to create and keep allies on both sides of the aisle, because “topics that have not historically been partisan have become extremely partisan.”

In response to the specific rescissions challenges the development community has been facing, Bera praised Senator Lindsay Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina who has long been a vocal supporter of diplomacy and development aid, saying that he doesn’t agree with him on most issues, but acknowledging his partnership in the fight against rescissions efforts. Bera also said he believes Congress needs to put together a new foreign assistance act, a lofty proposal due to increased partisanship in Congress and the amount of time since the system was overhauled.

When prompted by Saldinger to speculate on whether this could happen in the next year, he stressed the importance of taking a “long view,” and taking advantage of nontraditional allies, such as those in the defense industry that support the pursuit of diplomatic solutions, and working with Appropriations to get back to a more traditional process of allocating foreign assistance dollars. “We could be more efficient, as the U.S. government, if we pushed more of these funds to the NGOs that are actually on the ground.” 

During the interview with Saldinger, Congressman Bera underscored the importance of continuing to meet with members of Congress and explaining the merits of foreign aid and development, especially as leadership transitions are inevitable. Congressional delegations overseas, known as CODELS, to see the impact of U.S. foreign assistance and diplomacy are equally critical. He told the audience he knew at least one member of his freshman congressional class that had never travelled outside the U.S. until elected to Congress, and seeing impact first hand “really opened his eyes” and allowed him to understand why foreign assistance is so critical and meaningful—and highlights how if we do not continue to fill the leadership role, there are other countries who are willing to do it instead.

The return on investment, Bera said, was amazing to see. “Not just in terms of ‘actual’ investment, but in human return.”

Congressman Bera credited a CODEL to witness USAID’s work in India as pivotal in conservative Congressman Ted Yoho’s ardent support of the BUILD (Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development) Act—arguably the most important piece of U.S. “soft power” legislation in more than a decade. 

On the topic of China, Congressman Bera stressed the need for continued work on our relationship. While “we will always be competitors with China,” Bera said, he hopes there is also opportunity for collaboration, citing China’s global health challenges and health infrastructure. He spoke of looking ahead to the future, lamenting the missed opportunity to work with China on their “One Belt, One Road” initiative, hoping that we would not miss out on future opportunities to be partners.

“Disease travels fast, and we can’t just say ‘we have these two big oceans’ [keeping us apart], it doesn’t work that way,” and it’s in the United States’ best interest to support this kind of work even when it helps a country with whom we have an enormously complex geopolitical relationship. Referencing his recent position on a CSIS committee on strengthening America’s global health security, Saldinger asked the Congressman if he thought America was any closer to implementing any of that committee’s recommendations for improvements. He speculated that, in partnership with other global health advocates in Congress, it was time to start thinking about how to turn recommendations into legislation, and to take the long view as we’re approaching appropriations season. The biggest thing that stuck with him from this conversation was the need for “multi-decadal, sometimes multi-generational investments” that “can’t shift every four years.”

As for whether Congress will be able to make bipartisan progress in the next year, Bera said he and fellow supporters are watching closely to try to “hold the line” and prevent further rollbacks on foreign assistance. He noted there’s only a year until January 2021, and he optimistically added “maybe there’ll be an administration coming in that thinks a little differently about this.”

“And if there is, it’s important that we’re ready to jump in.”