CGD in the News

Raising USAID's Stature in the World (Politico)

January 23, 2013

President Nancy Birdsall writes an op-ed for Politico on elevating USAID's status.

The following article originally appeared in Politico.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton has been a visible and vocal champion of development. She has called development an “indispensable foreign policy tool for advancing American interests and solving global problems.” But her promise to make the U.S. Agency for International Development the premier development agency in the world remains a promise in progress.

Clinton is committed to development for its own sake. The best example is her support for women’s rights and contributions, though her development leadership, expertise and passion are wide ranging. Clinton has elevated development in U.S. foreign policy discourse — an important contribution in itself.

But Clinton has elevated development within, rather than alongside, diplomacy.

Clinton announced early in her term that she wanted USAID to become the world’s premier development agency. She chose and supported an impressive leader for the agency: Rajiv Shah. Shah has put USAID on the road to sensible internal reforms and revitalization. Against all odds, including at times from Clinton’s State Department, he has engineered the restoration of USAID’s policy and budget offices, set up an office focused on supporting innovations in service delivery and technologies, harnessed the American private agro-industry in support of food security in Africa and instituted a modern evaluation policy.

But I wish Clinton had pushed for more autonomy for USAID — if not as a Cabinet-level agency, then at least the status of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., and the Millennium Challenge Corp., as proposed by former colleagues who have since served in the Obama administration — and an explicit policy role for the USAID administrator. Foreign policy decisions on Mali, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, India — and even Mexico and Venezuela — plus climate, energy security, the farm bill and trade policy all would benefit from input from development officials alongside their diplomacy and defense counterparts. The point is not that the long-term development perspective should dominate foreign policy decision making, given the tough realities of what are sometimes short-term diplomatic and defense imperatives. But neither should diplomacy and short-term security always rule the day. All options and trade-offs should be considered.

Clinton could still make development a more equal foreign policy partner alongside diplomacy and defense by recommending to President Barack Obama a few key changes. For starters, she could ask the president to give the USAID administrator a permanent seat on the National Security Council. She could request that some of the major development initiatives — such as global health and the U.S. program in Haiti — be put explicitly under USAID leadership, rather than keeping them at the State Department as part of a more diffuse development approach to diplomacy. Along with humanitarian operations, global health is one of several areas in which confusion over leadership the past four years has made a joke of the whole government approach to development.

But a more lasting legacy for Clinton would come were she to propose to the president and her successor an entirely new approach to corporate governance at USAID — perhaps, as in the case of the MCC, as a quasi-independent agency with a board of both private individuals and public officials chaired by the secretary of state.

Clinton has a legacy as a champion of development for its own sake and in the interests of a better world for all. She may be the only person with the combination of passion and political clout to find a way to secure that legacy beyond her own term as secretary of state. A better USAID, with visibility, prestige and a clear mandate to participate in foreign policy decision making, may in turn be the only way to shore up America’s smart power and restore its leadership on critical 21st-century challenges.

Read it here.