Redesigning U.S. National Security Institutions

In December 2016, we made a case in Foreign Affairs for consolidating development and humanitarian relief operations under a single U.S. Government roof.  We argued that growing instability in the developing world was complicating our capacity to manage the great power relationships with China and Russia and creating fertile ground for non-state terrorist organizations. We also pointed to cost savings and management efficiencies in ending duplication and aligning missions with the right professional skills.

For the past year, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have been studying reform designs. Reports indicate that suggestions have been passed on to the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps one of the most important reforms needed for both the State Department and USAID is in their personnel systems.  Morale in both institutions has suffered and incoming classes of the Foreign Service have been cancelled, which over the long term will damage their respective operating capabilities.  Career officers are the repository of the collective expertise of both USAID and State Department and thus efforts should be made to retain senior officers who have wide experience or U.S. foreign and development policy will suffer over the long term.

The personnel systems for both institutions are in need of reform as the traditional systems provided for in federal law no longer serve the challenges facing America abroad.  USAID hires specialists in the technical sectors, while the State Department hires generalists because they have very different missions.  It’s time to consider the overhaul, at least, of the USAID personnel systems so they are more flexible and allow for much longer overseas assignments in particular countries.

Motivated by a deep concern that the civilian capacity of the U.S. Government to carry out diplomacy, development, and humanitarian relief is being seriously damaged, we joined the authors of five other reorganization reports to offer a consensus proposal for reform that would provide an alternative to the Administration and the Congress. The proposal is a non-partisan one, offered by individuals that possess impressive expertise. Their affiliations include The Atlantic Council, , The Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Center for Global Development, and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

The proposal recommends an independent lead agency for international assistance, USAID, which would have full budget and policy authority, and a Cabinet-rank for the USAID Administrator. It would virtually eliminate duplication between State and USAID functions and enable each to carry out its primary mission more efficiently. This central recommendation will achieve most of what we had recommended earlier, and it will enable the U.S. Government to adopt a more strategic approach to the missions of USAID.

Serving in the Administrations of Presidents Clinton and Bush respectively, we have experienced the inefficiencies of redundant and overlapping management systems. We have been frustrated when State or the Defense Department attempt to take over the development or relief missions when they do not possess the professional capacity to do so. These two departments carry out their primary military and diplomacy missions well, but when they move into the development space, huge mistakes are made. There is little or no appreciation for what it takes to work with local partners to produce sustainable results. It is time to create the authorities needed to allow development and humanitarian relief professionals to do their job. Some of the U.S. strategic failures in reconstructing Afghanistan and Iraq have been a function of USAID being in a subordinate position to the Defense and State Departments.  This placed organizational and political limitations on USAID in presenting alternative approaches to reconstruction and stabilization policy in the Interagency Process.

We are both encouraged to see the appointment of a skilled professional and political leader take charge of USAID. Mark Green has served in Congress, in a developing country as an Ambassador (Tanzania), and as CEO of non-governmental organizations that give him firsthand knowledge of at least two major development sectors: democratic governance and health.

The Administration and Congress should now give Administrator Green the full authority he needs to be effective, and the Cabinet-level standing that will empower him to coordinate development and relief operations within the U.S. Government. The consensus redesign we and other highly credible thought leaders propose would do just that.

J. Brian Atwood is a Senior Fellow for Pubic and International Affairs at Brown University’s Watson Institute and a former USAID Administrator.

Andrew Natsios is Director of the Scowcroft Institute and Professor at Texas A and M University’s George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service and a former USAID Administrator.

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