Ideas to Action:

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This blog entry also appeared on the Huffington Post.

Like many U.S. policy watchers, I have been reserving judgment on the administration’s development policy while they staffed up and worked through the PSD and QDDR. The rhetoric and the overall budget have so far been positive signs that development issues will get more attention and the key agencies more of a role in the interagency process.

But, at sixteen months and counting, I have a nagging question that I suspect I share with many others: Since when does “elevating development” mean further eroding USAID’s leadership, status, and mandates? Despite all the promises, the much ballyhooed “3D” strategy so far seems to be:

  • Decapitate. It took nearly a full year to finally appoint a USAID administrator. The eventual pick, Raj Shah, seems sharp and highly capable, but an extra four months later, he is still 0 for 12 on filling senior management positions. Yes, the vetting process is brutal and dysfunctional, but is any other federal agency still this empty at the top?
  • Demote. The USAID administrator still technically holds the rank of deputy secretary, but the position has been downgraded. Unlike his predecessor, Shah’s post is no longer dual-hatted as “director of foreign assistance” (so called F) within State. The lines of authority also seem less direct. Although I’m told Shah reports directly to the Secretary, the new second deputy secretary (filled by Jack Lew) is an extra layer between USAID and the State Department’s 7th floor that didn’t exist before.
  • Deny budget authority. The previous F/USAID dual-hatting arrangement was far from perfect, but gave USAID tremendous de facto influence and authority over the budget. By splitting those two roles, USAID is now, in both form and practice, almost completely out of the budget game.

These early signs should be warnings rather than comfort for those who were expecting so much more. If USAID continues to be stuck between an ambivalent White House and a turf-assertive State Department, it will continue its long decline. If the administration is serious about rebuilding USAID into the “premier development agency,” is it too much to ask that Shah be given a management team, clear and direct authorities, and some formal budget function?