USAID: Destined to Disappoint

August 02, 2013

The FY14 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill passed out of the House Appropriations Committee last week is a stinging reminder of the low esteem in which many members of Congress hold global development and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary federal agency charged with delivering US foreign assistance worldwide. Fully $10 billion less than the Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill, it slashes every major account USAID administers except for global health.

As a former assistant administrator for USAID, I often find myself defending the agency from charges of incompetence and hopelessness. I defend USAID not because I don’t see weaknesses or room for improvement (in fact, I have a long list of both) but because criticism of USAID is often leveled unfairly, without due appreciation for how over-bureaucratized the agency is or how often it is asked to do things that it is not well-suited or resourced to do.

The truth is this: There is a fundamental mismatch between the United States’ foreign aid architecture, resources, and objectives.

USAID is the dumping ground of US foreign assistance objectives, the sum of many disparate parts. Aid is often expected to compensate for other US policy decisions, especially in frontline states (e.g., Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt). If we just provide the money and the expertise, policymakers reason, then capacity, development, and governance (or at the very least, leverage) will follow.

Any development professional will tell you that this is simply not the case.

There is too little appreciation across the US government for the complexity of development and the difficulty of effecting institutional reform (the real crux of development), much less for the endogenous nature of these processes or the time it takes to see impact and results. What’s more, policymakers mistakenly equate development with foreign aid and conclude more foreign aid should result in more development.

The deeper issue behind all this remains: Why is development even important to the United States? By and large, the American people still don’t have an answer to this question (and no, it isn’t to stop terrorists.) In Washington, the connection between defense, diplomacy, and development is driven by bumper sticker-style notions of “3 Ds” and “whole of government.” This means nothing outside of Washington. Fundamentally, it is in the United States’ interest to have well-governed, prosperous states around the world that can provide security and economic opportunity for their citizens. Without development policy coherence inside the US government, it’s no wonder the American public cannot see its value.

With the right support and changes, however, USAID has the potential to be a premier development agency. What’s required is a development voice at the highest levels of national security and foreign policy decision-making – and that can be achieved in four ways:                                       

The White House could elevate development in practice, not just in rhetoric, by making the USAID administrator a standing member of the National Security Council. A development perspective is needed to stand against wishful policy thinking that argues for throwing money at Afghanistan and Pakistan to make them well-governed states or propagates the notion that a humanitarian safe zone in Syria would be effective. The USAID administrator could serve to remind NSC colleagues that these policies are not viable.

The Secretary of State could return actual budget and planning authority to USAID by restoring the USAID administrator as the dual-hatted director of US foreign assistance. The USAID administrator currently heads an agency that is independent on paper and reports directly to the secretary of state, yet whose budgeting authority sits with the deputy secretary of state for management and resources. Restoring the agency’s budgeting and planning authorities will show respect for its statutory independence and grant it the autonomy it needs to align capacity, resources, and objectives.

State’s Policy Planning Office could help answer strategic questions about the intersection of development and diplomacy before policy choices are presented to senior officials. Moreover, Policy Planning could help to mitigate State’s inherently short-term view of development and foreign aid and be an internal voice for a long-term, evidence-based perspective on how development and diplomacy can and should intersect.

The Global Development Council could elevate the discussion on development policy, pushing it beyond a conversation about bilateral foreign aid for sector-specific initiatives and directives by answering questions such as: What are the merits for the US of bilateral or multilateral aid to support development? What other neglected policy tools could support US development goals?

Without an empowered development agency to point out the limitations and trade-offs of foreign policy decisions for development and humanitarian objectives, we cannot expect more rational development policy. As it stands, too seldom does evidence inform policy when it comes to development’s role in advancing US national security interests. Too little consideration is given to other tools that might be more effective in promoting development than bilateral economic assistance--such as trade, investment, or migration policy—or to evaluating when  multilateral aid may be more effective than bilateral aid, particularly in frontline states.

Until development is treated as an end in its own right rather than a subordinate means for fighting terrorism or winning friends, the United States’ foreign aid architecture, resources, and objectives will continue to be woefully misaligned and USAID is destined to disappoint.


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.