How the Next USAID Administrator Can Double Down on Development

January 21, 2021

Last week’s announcement of Ambassador Samantha Power as President Joe Biden’s nominee for the US Agency for International Development Administrator was welcomed by many from across the development community. Not only is Ambassador Power a high-profile pick who will bring clout and deep foreign policy experience to the embattled aid agency, but the announcement itself also conveyed a clear message that the Biden administration is keen to elevate global development.

First there’s the timing of the announcement—notably taking place prior to inauguration day. Under the Obama administration, it was almost a year before USAID had confirmed political leadership—and Ambassador Mark Green’s tenure at the helm of the agency didn’t begin until August 2017. But the announcement was also accompanied by a declaration that the USAID administrator will be a member of the National Security Council (NSC), the White House’s chief interagency policy advisory forum. Giving USAID a formal seat at the table promises to elevate the development perspective, helping ensure the agency’s mission will have a distinct voice alongside diplomacy and security in vital national policy discussions.

Ambassador Power doesn’t have a development background, per se. But the human rights-based focus upon which she’s built much of her career will likely be welcome among development experts dissatisfied with the growing prominence over the past four years of the view of foreign aid as a transactional tool for pursuing narrow US self-interests. She would also bring to the job a career’s worth of experience that is particularly relevant for the current moment. As US Ambassador to the United Nations, she helped build a coalition to respond to the 2013–2016 Ebola epidemic. And to an incoming administration that has pledged a recommitment to international cooperation, her deep experience with the multilateral system will be an asset—from her UN days to in her role as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in the NSC. Global COVID response and recovery will necessitate the effective deployment of resources from across government; the USAID administrator could be well positioned to help coordinate with other agencies and Congress to allocate responsibility and funding based on the comparative advantages of bilateral and multilateral channels.  

If confirmed, Ambassador Power’s priorities as USAID administrator will be framed within the context of broader administration priorities and guided by congressional directives. But her recent article in Foreign Affairs provides a thoughtful take on the foreign policy priorities she’d like to see the Biden administration take on, giving some insight into what she might champion as USAID administrator and as the top development voice on the NSC. This piece reviews these topline priorities (as a sub-set of the larger priority list the USAID administrator will face), how they tie into development, and how Ambassador Power might expand upon this initial set of ideas to better advance US development goals.

Power’s highlighted priorities

Spearheading global COVID vaccine distribution

Protecting against continued global spread of the virus is a top priority for the incoming administration and an objective that sits squarely at the intersection of global development and national security. Pandemic control around the world is critical for the United States’ own success against the virus, fundamental for restarting the global economy to which American well-being is inextricably linked, and vital to continued progress on other health and development outcomes.

To this end, Ambassador Power urges the Biden administration to join the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, the multilateral initiative—co-led by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the World Health Organization, and GAVI—to speed vaccine development; expand manufacturing capability;, and purchase vaccine supply at prices that can ensure distribution across the world, including to countries whose baseline ability to pay would otherwise affect their access. The Trump administration refused to join most of the rest of the world (190 countries) in signing on. In a quick reversal, the Biden administration has already announced its intent to join COVAX, and the $4 billion in emergency funding for GAVI included in the FY21 omnibus spending measure provides an opening for US funding to the initiative. US involvement could get COVAX closer to the funding levels it will need to reach its target of vaccinating 20 percent of people in lower-income countries. And, as CGD’s Amanda Glassman points out, US participation also has the potential to strengthen the COVAX facility by helping it move from an emergency-based commitment to purchase any vaccine that meets minimum standards of safety and efficacy to establishing an advance market commitment for—and thereby incentivizing the development and production of—more efficacious vaccines.

Ambassador Power also calls for ramping up US bilateral efforts to support vaccine roll out in low- and middle-income countries, leveraging its extensive partnerships and expertise. Indeed, the United States has a strong base upon which to build, having long been a top bilateral donor to basic health and infectious disease control objectives.

Successful bilateral support for COVID vaccines will go some way toward repairing US credibility as a force for good in global health. But as CGD’s Amanda Glassman, Janeen Madan Keller, and Rachel Silverman point out, it will also need to put its resources and expertise to use in building back from the disruption wrought by the pandemic on essential health services—basic childhood vaccinations, care and treatment for HIV, and maternal and child health care.

Beyond vaccines to control the current pandemic, the Biden administration has a key opportunity to get serious about setting up the institutional infrastructure to prevent or better respond to a future pandemic. This won’t—and shouldn’t—fall to USAID alone, but given its preeminent role in global health, the new administrator will have a significant role to play in ensuring US policy and funding enable better preparedness in low- and middle-income countries.

Controlling corruption—both at home and abroad

With this priority, Ambassador Power rightly recognizes that each player in a globalized economy bears responsibility for curbing flows of illicit funds, and that the United States—as a major player—has particular obligations. Ambassador Power focuses on sanctions and prosecution, as well as campaign finance reform. Updates to the US financial transparency system will also be critical. CGD’s Clemence Landers recommends including curbing the use of anonymous shell companies through beneficial disclosure laws, rejoining the Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiative (and working with Congress to strengthen the Securities and Exchange Commission rule enacting Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act), and implementing new requirements on public disclosure of companies’ country-level global economic activities.

Much of this is outside the purview of the USAID administrator, but Ambassador Power’s focus on corruption and rule of law will also find a particular home within the parts of USAID charged with implementing the Global Fragility Act. Fragility often stems, at least in part, from corrupt leaders or governments seeking to maximize their own interests at the expense of others. But tackling underlying governance issues has rarely been a US government priority in fragile states, with fairly limited funding and projects focused on discrete technical challenges rather than primary dynamics. The GFA’s new focus on violence prevention gives greater impetus to thinking about governance—including control of corruption—in more strategic ways. Figuring out what this looks like, in practice, across agencies, doesn’t promise to be easy, so having a champion in Ambassador Power—whose prize-winning, seminal work focuses on prevention of violence (in the form of genocide)—can help advance those goals.   

Opening up to international students

After four years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and visa restrictions, to the detriment of US interests, this would be a welcome change. Such a policy would build technical skills and impart democratic values to a cadre of future decision makers and elites. Of course, the issuance of student visas falls under the auspices of the State Department, along with the Department of Homeland Security, rather than USAID. But the agency could play a role in making this work more for development. USAID supports students from low- and middle-income countries to study at US universities each year, but less so than in the past and far fewer than many other host countries, notably China. With the support of Congress, the agency could consider ramping up this role, once global travel can safely resume. Of course, graduate education programs can tend to primarily benefit students from elite families, so any resumption of this role should be accompanied by efforts to recruit students more widely.

More fundamentally, however, Ambassador Power should take this "opening up" agenda further by advocating for ways to harness migration as a tool for development. Research shows that migration can be an incredibly powerful tool for advancing global economic prosperity. President Biden has already announced that one of his top, early priorities will be rethinking US immigration policy, including addressing “push” factors in countries of origin. Ambassador Power could help shape the terms of this new policy so that it better advances development goals.

CGD colleagues have recommended that the US expand legal migration pathways from Mexico and the Northern Triangle to improve business productivity in the US and economic development in countries of origin. Such legal pathways, coupled with robust border enforcement, are the best way to manage migration across the Southern border. These pathways could be included within bilateral labor agreements and should be negotiated by a new government unit dedicated to advancing migration for development. USAID could be the bureaucratic home for such a structure, in line with similar structures within the Australian and German aid agencies (though other departments, like the State Department, could also take the lead, with cooperation from USAID to ensure the prominence of development objectives).

Ambassador Power also has the opportunity to promote a more evidence-based rhetoric around the linkages between aid, economic development, and migration. As CGD’s Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel have pointed out, emigration rises with economic development and therefore aid spending rarely deters migration. Development policy should focus on leveraging migration for mutual benefit, not deterring it.

An opening for elevating the role of evidence and evaluation

Ambassador Power calls for a renewed focus on “tangible outcomes” and the need to “[deliver] on issues that matter right now.” She highlights big-ticket items that would demonstrate American competence, but the agency would benefit from a bold and renewed commitment to impact and results across its portfolio. To achieve this, USAID will need to prioritize the use of evidence to select, target, and design programs, and examine how it generates evidence of its own results, both to learn from its experiences and promote accountability. Concrete steps to do so include consolidating the agency’s various evidence and evaluation units and elevating them to report to the administrator; ensuring, through the procurement and program design processes, that interventions are based in evidence or integrate opportunities for experimentation and testing; employing evaluation resources more strategically to build evidence in high-priority areas; investing in faster, less expensive data sources and evaluation methods; and advancing efforts to analyze comparative cost-effectiveness.

The sheer magnitude of need across the globe adds to the imperative for well-targeted, evidence-informed programs. And with COVID-induced fiscal pressure likely to squeeze future aid budgets, attention to value for money is more important than ever. Ambassador Power, if confirmed, will have a critical role to play in elevating evidence and evaluation at USAID. Shifting agency practice and culture is a hard slog. And a commitment to evaluation exposes the agency to a degree of risk since it means knowing more about all the results—the good and the bad (and there will be both). High-level political support will be critical for setting expectations about evidence generation and use—and driving the organization in that direction.

The global context for the next USAID administrator

The COVID pandemic and its aftermath will be the dominant background of the Biden administration’s global development agenda. But Ambassador Power notes some key underlying trends that will frame US development policy toward the pandemic and beyond.

First, the United States—with its poorly handled domestic COVID response and the attack on its own institutions of democratic governance—has lost some of its “moral authority” and credibility on the global stage. The Biden administration will work to restore a global leadership role for the United States, shore up weakened alliances, and rebuild an image of competence. But partners across the globe will remain wary of the political whiplash the US political system can bring.

Meanwhile, the US will continue to reckon with its relationship with China on the global stage, including as a development actor. While the Biden administration will undoubtedly walk away from the unhelpful “Clear Choice” rhetoric of the Trump administration (essentially: “Chinese financing is a debt trap while USAID financing will help you achieve ‘self-reliance’”), it’s clear that countering China will still loom large in US development policy. This is apparent in Ambassador Power’s list of foreign policy priorities: pushing hard on democracy and anti-corruption are seen as particular US comparative advantages; welcoming back international students is an attempt to regain ground American universities have lost to Chinese academia; and while advancing an effective response to the global impacts of COVID is clearly in everyone’s best interests, it’s framed partly as an opportunity to demonstrate that we can do it better than China. However, as CGD’s Scott Morris points out, while competition with China is an appropriate framework for some things (like development finance, where the United States should compete to ensure deals prioritize development, transparency, and a sound approach to debt risk), on shared global challenges like the pandemic recovery and response, the United States should seek to cooperate with China, from transparency on vaccine development and efficacy to scaling vaccine distribution.

And finally, while the priorities enumerated above are those that Ambassador Power highlighted as important, they are just a sub-set of the priorities that the Biden administration—and USAID administrator—will seek to tackle. The next USAID administrator has a tough job ahead. Ambassador Power brings her clout and a wealth of experience to the job. And it’s encouraging that she may be in place relatively soon. But steering an agency as large as USAID requires a full crew, with skills and expertise that complement the administrator’s. Here’s hoping the momentum on quick and credible nominations continues apace. The imperative of responding to the pandemic and promoting global recovery isn’t waiting.


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