The Clashes of the Nineties: The Administrator’s Take

See below for a guest post from J. Brian Atwood, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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John Norris has performed a service in recounting the highlights of USAID’s history. I am convinced that no organization in the world has contributed as much to development and humanitarian relief. He is correct in characterizing my tenure as tumultuous. But the battle over Senator Helms’ plan to merge with State did not prevent the Agency from taking new initiatives. The Agency got a lot done in those years and we set an agenda that lives to this day.

While I appreciate very much being remembered as the Administrator who saved the Agency, I must point out that no Administrator had as strong a group of appointees and career leaders. As a team we were not the least bit naïve about Capitol Hill politics or State Department pressures. Each of our presidential appointees possessed relevant Washington experience on the Hill, at the State Department, the White House and in politics, in addition to having solid development and/or relief backgrounds. They were supported by career professionals who were anxious to implement reforms to untie red tape.

Those reforms, undertaken in the first two years, are what saved the Agency. We created an operational model that has largely remained in place. We not only eliminated 26 overseas missions, we merged and/or eliminated bureaus in Washington. When one considers where the world of development is today with respect to local ownership, transparency, results measurement and mutual accountability, we were way ahead of our time.

We created a strategic framework for the Agency, narrowing down and rationalizing the principle objectives of the development mission. We flattened out the structure of our overseas missions, creating strategic objective teams who would work with local partners to determine specific goals, even signing agreements with them on how, when and what was to be accomplished. We insisted that results and failures be documented.

Within a few years a local university recognized the Agency as having submitted the most comprehensive annual report as required by the Government Performance and Review act. And the Ferris Commission that had issued a highly critical report on the Agency in the Administration of George H. W. Bush called our reforms “a dramatic transformation.”

We introduced the Office of Transitions Initiatives, filling a gap between our long-term development and relief programs. The concept of the relief-to-reconciliation-to-development continuum continues to characterize the approach adopted in post-conflict and fragile states. Today the United Nations and other bilateral donors have OTI-type units

Our commitment to transparency led to our desire to create a system that would allow our partners, Congress and the public to view real time information about expenditures, results and overall performance. Given Government Accountability Office audits about the Agency’s failure to account for taxpayers’ resources, we had to try to fix our systems; we wanted a system that would do more than just accounting.

Our plans were too ambitious and, like other government agencies (most recently HHS’ Affordable Care Act implementing system!), we could not solve the challenge of attempting to connect a sophisticated system with our over 100 missions. Technology had not yet evolved to make this possible. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I do not regret making the effort. This is exactly the kind of real-time information the International Aid Transparency Initiative encourages donors to provide today.

By far the most difficult issue I faced was the necessity to conduct a reduction in force (RIF) during my tenure. The USAID operations budget was under constant pressure from the Hill, particularly after the other party captured both houses of Congress. Some believe that the effort to modernize our accountability systems caused the RIF. However, we were in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If we didn’t try to fix the auditing systems, our operations budget would have suffered even deeper cuts.

This was the era of the “Contract With America” and the prevailing belief that the end of the Cold War demanded a “peace dividend.” But it was State and USAID, not DoD that suffered the large cuts. In future years DoD would complain that the civilian effort in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was inadequate. State and USAID budgets have grown, but they are still woefully inadequate given the challenges we face today.

Yes, the nineties were tumultuous times, but even so, USAID led the international development community in innovation. We pushed to set goals within the Development Assistance Committee and other donors agreed. These became the Millennium Development Goals. Now the entire world is being held accountable against these standards.

We promoted the idea that democratic governance was an essential aspect of sustainable development. That was controversial in those days. It is now settled development policy.

In the health sector, we led in the fight against malaria by offering evidence of the preventive benefits of bed nets. We promoted the fortification of food with vital vitamins, encouraged the use of disposable syringes and HIV/AIDS testing kits. We were in the forefront of the battle against climate change by helping developing countries modernize power plants to reduce emissions. We began the effort to help vulnerable countries become more resilient.

We also took our case to the American people and were rewarded with dozens of favorable editorials. Our “Lessons Without Borders“ program brought our professionals home to share experiences with domestic anti-poverty workers. We engaged young people in “Operation Day’s Work,” a Norwegian initiative that exposed school children to development programs. We didn’t lie down in the face of political opposition; we took our case to the country.

The story of the nineties for USAID was one of success in adversity. The credit should go to great career professionals and the best set of professional political appointees the Agency has seen (I will only name one here, my friend and former deputy Carol Lancaster who is battling cancer just as she battled everything else life threw her way).

Many of the ideas and concepts that grew out of the nineties are only now seeing their full potential. That would not have happened had USAID been merged into the State Department. The diplomatic and development missions are vitally important, but they operate on different time lines, require different management systems and their professionals have different skill sets. The “clashes” of the nineties brought out these realities. The tensions may remain, but the debate is over.

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