New Devex Site Explores History of U.S. Foreign Aid

Last week Devex launched a new microsite dedicated to exploring the history of U.S. foreign assistance. The new site features a timeline recounting the history of our foreign aid back to the establishment of U.S. Agency for International Development in 1961. In addition to the timeline, the site takes a close look “inside USAID’s top job” in a series of posts by John Norris, Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress and MFAN Executive Committee Member.

Norris breaks down USAID’s history into four periods, with a final piece reflecting on what lessons can be learned from past administrators as we move forward. See below for brief highlights from the series:

Kennedy, Johnson and the early years

The first part of the series covers the establishment of USAID in 1961 and its first three administrators: Fowler Hamilton (1961-1962), David Bell (1962-1966), and William Gaud (1966-1969) who were appointed under President Kennedy and President Johnson.

An interesting highlight from this period is that President Kennedy and Administrator Bell, noted as the first administrator to really get USAID up and running after it was established, “agreed that effective development required a degree of independence from the State Department” and that “many subsequent administrators would have to fight to maintain that relative autonomy.”

The Cold War and its aftermath

Part Two looks at President’s Nixon, Carter, Reagan and H.W. Bush and the administrators appointed during these Administrations: John Hannah (1969-1973), Daniel Parker (1973-1977), John Gilligan (1977-1979), Douglas Bennet (1979-1981), Peter McPherson (1981-1987), Alan Woods (1987-1989) and Ronald Roskens (1990-1992).

Notable moments from this period include:

  • The Peterson Commission Report, a major review of U.S. foreign aid, and the creation of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation under Administrator Hannah;
  • The appointment of Daniel Parker marking “the beginning of a downward slide for the agency”;
  • President Carter’s (unsuccessful) attempt to consolidate management of all U.S. foreign aid programs at USAID while John Gilligan was administrator; and
  • The appointment of USAID’s longest-serving (“and one who is also widely considered to be its best”) administrator, Peter McPherson, by President Reagan.

The clashes of the 1990s

The third part of the series examines the two administrators appointed by President Clinton: J. Brian Atwood (1993-1999) and J. Brady Anderson (1999-2001). Norris notes that when Clinton became president he was “acutely aware that the American public had denied George H.W. Bush a second term, in no small part because they felt he was excessively focused on international affairs at the expense of domestic priorities.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming piece from former Administrator Brian Atwood responding to Norris’ take on this time period.

Sept. 11 and beyond

The fourth installment looks at USAID under President George W. Bush and Administrators Andrew Natsios (2001-2006), Randall Tobias (2006-2007), and Henrietta Fore (2007-2009). The piece notes that “much of Natsios’ tenure was defined by massive reconstruction work in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Other highlights from the Bush presidency include the establishment of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, as well as the establishment of the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) under Administrator Fore.

This piece also examines foreign assistance during President Obama’s administration and USAID under current Administrator Raj Shah (2009 – Present).

Lessons for the future

The series concludes with Norris’ thoughts on what we can learn from looking back at the evolution of foreign assistance and the experiences of past administrators. To avoid the dreaded spoilers, be sure to check out his conclusions (and the rest of the site and series!).

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