Opinion: USAID needs more autonomy

Updated on
The World

WASHINGTON — In insider Washington there is a battle going on over who will control U.S. global development strategy. The gossip is that it is a White House-State Department fight compounded by a low-level struggle inside State between the secretary’s staff and the old development guard at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In reality, the president, the secretary of state and the head of USAID all want the same thing: stronger development tools to fight poverty and promote prosperity to create a better, safer America and world. Key members of Congress stand ready to offer support. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been arguing for stronger development and diplomatic programs to complement U.S. defense efforts.

But after 16 months of a new administration, taxpayers and concerned citizens are still wondering who is in charge of U.S. development strategy and programs, including the $20 billion a year the U.S. spends on development aid. Below the president himself, whom can we hold accountable for an effective strategy and good programs?

The struggles over who is in charge of what and the resulting delay of the release of the White House’s first ever Presidential Study Directive on U.S. Global Development Policy are having unfortunate consequences for our foreign policy goals — from Pakistan to Haiti to our climate policy — as well as our partners in poor countries and our image abroad.

Word is that a draft of the presidential study directive defines a strategy for global development covering not just aid, but trade, migration, climate change and more; and proposes that a senior development official should have a distinct voice at the foreign policy table, preferably with a seat on the National Security Council alongside defense and diplomacy. That is good.

But what about who will be in charge and accountable to Congress, the president and the American people? We hope it will be head of USAID, Raj Shah, and that alongside the presidential study directive, the complementary review managed in the State Department will assign to him sufficient autonomy to do the job well.

Why the head of USAID? Why does greater autonomy for USAID matter? While our three main tools of foreign policy — development, diplomacy and defense — should support one another, they have different means for achieving complementary but distinct ends. First, there are trade-offs between more immediate political decisions (often in the realm of defense and diplomacy) and the longer-term horizons and endurance required to reap the benefits of development investments.

Second, there are differences in how broadly dispersed these tools should be. For diplomacy, it makes sense to have some presence in as many countries as possible. For defense, the goal may be to be in as few countries as needed. Development is somewhere in between. Especially given limited development resources, it may make the most sense to focus on fewer places for bigger impact, a direction the White House review of development policy may be headed.

Perhaps most importantly, there must be some degree of separation between development and other foreign policy tools so Congress and the American people can track and measure development results against development objectives — today’s diffuse and unclear authority makes accountability impossible.

In practical terms, elevating development, as Secretary Clinton has pledged to do, means providing the USAID administrator autonomy over policy, program and budget decision-making sufficient to get the biggest bang for our development bucks. Of course this is not an entitlement for the agency. As with other agencies, we should set the bar high for USAID and expect to see — and measure — strong performance and results, with programs and resources scaled up or down accordingly.

Unfortunately, while we wait for clarity on these strategic and organizational decisions, the administration has launched two new development initiatives focused on food security ($3.5 billion over three years) and global health ($63 billion over six years) that have impenetrable joint management across agencies and offices that appear to perpetuate the current tangle. We fear this ad hoc approach will lead to uncertain and ad hoc results.

For almost two decades, the U.S. has not only significantly under-invested in development; we have structured our development programs in ways that weaken, rather than strengthen their impact. It’s time for decisions. We urge Secretary Clinton to put the USAID administrator in charge of these two major new development initiatives. We urge her, whose commitment to development objectives is clear and compelling, to give Raj Shah the broader policy and budget authorities that will make USAID, as she promised in her January speech at the Center for Global Development, “the world’s premier development agency.”

Secretary Clinton may be the first secretary of state whose imprint will be felt most deeply in the world’s poorest villages, where poverty, disease, inequality and lack of opportunity devastate families, impede growth and breed instability. We hope she will make getting development right — making it stronger and more accountable — her key legacy as secretary of state.

Nancy Birdsall is the president of the Center for Global Development. Sarah Jane Staats is the director of policy outreach at the Center for Global Development.

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