Loving USAID to Death

by Diana Ohlbaum

For those who recall the relentless attacks on the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the recent outpouring of support for the institution and its mission is simply stunning.

A discussion draft by the co-chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) would recast USAID as a Global Development Agency whose director would have Cabinet rank and report to the president. A task force report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) would transfer programs currently run by the State Department to USAID management and require that independent development agencies begin reporting to the USAID administrator. Most recently, a State Department Reform Report by the Atlantic Council would assign USAID responsibility for overseeing and coordinating all forms of civilian foreign assistance—including stability and security operations. All three proposals would expand the development agency’s power, authority, and scope to an extent previously unimaginable.

And it’s not just think tanks that are showing the love. Lawmakers are already pushing back against aid cuts and redesign efforts that would downgrade U.S. diplomatic and development capacity. Senate appropriators called the CSIS report “a more thoughtful and realistic approach to improving America’s foreign policy architecture and programs than the reckless cuts proposed in the [administration’s] International Affairs budget request.”

Given the widely cited problem of aid fragmentation, it is understandable that proponents of a robust, empowered, accountable development agency would want to gather up widely dispersed development functions and consolidate them under USAID leadership. But there are important drawbacks to incorporating outside offices, agencies, and responsibilities under the mantle of USAID or a successor agency.

The first is that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM)—which would report to, be partially merged into, or be coordinated by the development agency under these proposals—are currently functioning well. They have narrowly defined and clearly articulated missions that would not benefit from being subsumed under new layers of bureaucracy or being severed from U.S. diplomatic channels. They have separate tools, processes, and systems that are designed to achieve their specific goals. In addition, they have strong, independent bases of support within Congress and the health and humanitarian communities. Foreign aid reform will entail enough daunting political challenges without picking fights among friends, absent a compelling benefit to aid efficiency and effectiveness.

Second, by putting the USAID administrator in charge of coordinating foreign assistance more broadly, the reports tend to conflate foreign aid with development. But development is only one among many goals of foreign aid, and foreign aid is only one among many tools for development. The United States also provides security assistance, through the Department of Defense as well as the State Department, which includes training and equipping foreign forces, selling arms and materiel, preventing nuclear proliferation, professionalizing police, removing landmines, and countering terrorism and violent extremism. Foreign aid supports multilateral peacekeeping, diplomatic norm-setting, and economic stabilization efforts through contributions to the United Nations and international financial institutions. The State Department seeks to buy influence and win hearts and minds using politically directed funds. Export and trade promotion programs aim to stimulate foreign demand for U.S. goods and services and make U.S. companies more competitive in the global marketplace.

It makes sense to designate an overall coordinator of foreign assistance that can balance and contextualize all these different forms of aid, lending greater coherence and consistency to U.S. foreign policy. But no individual or department, other than the National Security Council, has the breadth of authority and vision to do so. Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created an Office of the Director of Foreign Assistance in 2006, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, and Agriculture were never subject to its mandate. Only USAID was brought under its aegis.

Charging the USAID administrator with coordinating all foreign assistance, or even non-military foreign assistance, is a set-up for failure. It would give the administrator formal responsibility for a broad swath of programs but not the genuine ability to control them, making accountability more complicated. It would allow the administrator less time to provide leadership and direction to USAID, leaving the agency adrift. And it would mean that the administrator’s top priority would not always be development, once again diluting the development voice in foreign policy-making.

Despite its overreach, the Atlantic Council does a great service by asserting, “No significant problem would be solved by…merging USAID fully or more fully into the State Department”—a point on which nearly 60 other reports agree. Soon the Heritage Foundation is expected to release a report calling for the dismantling and merger of USAID into the State Department, and it’s difficult to imagine that the opaque reorganization processes led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Office of Management and Budget are headed in a constructive direction. In this environment, humanitarian and development advocates should focus on making USAID better at what it does rather than on giving it more to do.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Defense Department

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum



  1. Ask yourself where U.S. foreign aid has succeeded, and why. Reconstruction? Yes, but best with credits to existing institutions. Investments and economic growth? Banks and private industries did/do it effectively, not governments. Governance? Success is rare, if ever, e.g., the Philippines, Vietnam. Humanitarian? Sadly, more “feeding fish” rather than “teaching to fish.” Health? Killed malaria eradication in the ’60s. Small pox succeeded, but succeeded through scientific invention, and driven locally. HIV/AIDs, family planning, maternal health more sop to U.S. interest groups, and succeeding largely through implementation by aided countries. Security? A costly U.S. entitlement program to foreign countries. A lot more realism is required to overcome mistakes in policy and implementation.

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