Redesign Should Support an Independent USAID

I congratulate those who worked on the Redesign Consensus: A Plan for U.S. Assistance.  Though there will be some disagreement on the details within the development community, the document provides core concepts for the immediate and needed advocacy on Capitol Hill and with the Administration. These themes include a substantially independent USAID with authority and responsibility over its own budget and policy. Another main recommendation is that USAID should have a central role on development issues in the executive branch.

The independence of USAID is always a topic of interest.  One way to think about this is how closely USAID should be associated with U.S. foreign policy.

From its inception, USAID has been closely associated with U.S. foreign policy.  During my tenure as USAID Administrator under President Reagan, USAID was legally separate from the State Department, but in effect I reported to Secretary of State George Schultz.  Importantly, and I emphasize this, all the rest of USAID reported to me, not to others in the State Department. I believe Secretary Schultz felt he had the oversight he needed with USAID for foreign policy purposes. He was certainly critical in fighting for USAID’s budget with OMB and on the Hill.  The relationship the agency had with Secretary Schultz was good for USAID and for the country. Moreover, in my view, that relationship worked better for the State Department than the current system epitomized by the present role of the Office of Foreign Assistance Resources, or “F” bureau, in the State Department.

On the other hand, some bilateral donors have tried an approach where there is little connection between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and their foreign aid programs. The idea was that these foreign aid programs would be largely development programs with a sufficiently strong domestic constituency to support it.  In fact, there has been some movement back and forth by individual bilateral donors on this organizational issue.

A generation ago, there was not a sufficiently powerful constituency in the U.S. for a focused development approach and of course we were in the middle of the Cold War. There may now be a broader and deeper development constituency in the U.S.  I assume that all of this will be part of the discussion in the current redesign exercise.  In any case, we need to make a compelling case for a strong USAID.

I hope that core concepts of the consensus document can now be adopted by the Trump Administration and put into law.

Peter McPherson is President of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and former USAID Administrator.

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