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President Obama has generally gotten high marks for his performance after 100 days in office. But the development community has to be disappointed. Why?

In January I included in my wish list for this administration that it “Get serious about development as one of the Three D’s,” i.e. that the Obama Administration strengthen the development leg of the three-legged foreign policy stool (defense, diplomacy and development). So far I see no clear sign that that is happening. The rhetoric is good (from both the president and from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) but the reality is that if anything the development leg is more stunted than it was during the Bush Administration. As my colleague Sarah Jane Staats notes, Obama has been slower to make this appointment than the five presidents who preceded him.

The problem is that in the federal government, organization and structure drive strategy, and there is no sign that this administration will attack the deep problems of organization and structure in the executive functions (though oddly and unprecedentedly it is the Congress, especially Congressman Howard Berman, that is taking some initiative with the Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act of 2009 that he introduced earlier this week with Rep. Kirk). It would be nice but naïve to imagine that strategy precedes structure. When a president is desperate for strategy to lead organization, he appoints a czar – as for energy or health reform, or sets up a special White House team, to deal with the auto industry problem.

What has happened organizationally about development? Two steps backwards. For more than three decades, the most identifiable point person in the U.S. administration on development issues has been the head of USAID, and that person held the rank (not the position) of Deputy Secretary of State. Widely endorsed and carefully thought through proposals for a major reform of U.S. foreign assistance programs, refined and restated in congressional testimony of my colleague Steve Radelet and others, have included emphasis on raising the profile of that appointment, both by making the appointee a member of the National Security Council (see Sheila Herrling’s policy memo) and by triple-hatting that appointee – as head not only of USAID but of Pepfar and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (without necessarily merging the three sub-bureaucracies, each of which has its own mission and implementation culture).

What are the two steps backwards? First, the next head of USAID, despite having the rank of Deputy Secretary of State, may end up for all practical purposes reporting to Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, a former OMB official charged by Secretary Clinton with sorting out administrative and budget arrangements at State. Second, with the recent appointment of Eric Goosby as head of Pepfar, the hope for sensible triple-hatting of the head of USAID has dimmed, and you might say that the tail (of HIV/AIDS programs) will be wagging the dog of development assistance overall.

What can be done? First, the development community should be asking the White House to work with Secretary Clinton to name a strong USAID Administrator quickly, at the rank of Deputy Secretary of State (as codified in the law), with the budget autonomy and other responsibilities concomitant with that rank, and a direct reporting relationship to the Secretary of State. Second, the community should be calling on Secretary Clinton to give that person responsibility for Pepfar and MCC as well as USAID. Third, the development community should be lobbying with the White House for the USAID Administrator (preferably wearing the triple-hat) to have a seat at NSC, where he or she should be responsible not only for effective use of U.S. foreign assistance but for bringing to decision-making on trade, migration, climate change, banking work-outs, and stimulus deployment, the implications for political and economic change in emerging markets and poor and fragile states, and thus for long-term U.S. security and prosperity.

Who do I mean by the development community? See the names of people who are or were members of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network including some of the largest U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (like CARE, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, Mercy Corps and so on) and corporations (Walmart, Cargill, Mars and more) who recently signed an open letter to the president on the importance of global development and foreign assistance reform.

Let me suggest an example of the cost of neglecting this priority. It is alarming that the U.S. is revamping its “development assistance” in Pakistan without a development person at the big table -- who understands the the constraints as well as the potential for more spending there to make a real difference.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.