The Biden-Harris administration inherits a world facing multiple transnational crises that will require that the U.S. provides holistic leadership from the full suite of U.S. international engagement — development, diplomacy, economic, and defense. President Biden took a strong step in this direction when he nominated Ambassador Samantha Power as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and naming her a permanent member of the principal’s committee of the National Security Council (NSC). This means that a development voice will be present at all national security discussions and will have a say in shaping some of the most sensitive U.S. policy positions.
This fulfills a longstanding recommendation of the aid reform community, including the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN). MFAN spoke with past USAID administrators to better understand the impact of this decision; all agreed that this was a welcome decision and one that would have a clear and appreciable impact on U.S. foreign policy.
Past administrators could all point to examples where being present enabled them to positively influence a decision or enable a change to policy that would have negative outcomes for American development and humanitarian objectives. Raj Shah and Gayle Smith both served as USAID administrator under President Obama, and dealt with many humanitarian crises, including the Haitian earthquake in 2010 and the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015. Shah explained that when the Ebola outbreak began, data was difficult to come by; in response he had his staff create a score card that included clear metrics. He noted, “That report card helped focus NSC discussion and the president’s decisions.” Smith added, “having USAID at the table not only allowed for insight and information on the immediate response, but also perspective on the longer-term challenge of global health security, and…the criticality of strong public health systems everywhere.”
The absence of a development policy voice cannot only undermine development outcomes, it can also have unintended consequences for broader U.S. objectives. This was especially true during the Clinton and Bush administrations. For example, in the 1990s, the U.S. provided significant assistance to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states to transform their formerly command economies and authoritarian governments into liberal democracies and open economic markets. Then administrator, Brian Atwood, found out that the Agriculture Department had received permission from the NSC to ship a large surplus of wheat to Russia. Fearing this would undercut USAID’s efforts to privatize the old Soviet agricultural distribution system, Atwood went to see the Secretary of Agriculture. “Dan [Glickman] was sympathetic and understood my point, but the wheat was being shipped…That undercut a major strategic objective of our Russian development program.”
Being a member of the NSC will enable direct and timely sharing of information with the president and the inter-agency that might otherwise be overlooked or filtered through another agency’s perspective. Including the administrator on the NSC also recognizes that development is distinct from diplomacy and defense, the two other primary legs of American engagement abroad. This allows the administrator to drive change by regularly providing an important alternative viewpoint. Previously, the administrator was invited to join NSC meetings when the topic covered was development, but this was not always a regular process, and the absence of that perspective mattered. Brian Atwood, administrator under President Clinton, and Andrew Natsios, administrator under President George W. Bush, both noted that they were sometimes not consulted or invited even when there were clear development impacts. Natsios explained that he was frequently excluded from NSC meetings during the run up to the war in Iraq, even when reconstruction issues were discussed. This trend became less frequent as USAID grew stronger through an increased budget and greater numbers of staff during the later years of the Bush administration and continued under President Obama, reaching a point where the administrator was present for nearly all NSC meetings.
The Biden administration’s decision is the culmination of a long journey that saw the administrator move from a sometime participant in NSC meetings to a much more regular one in recent years. The Trump administration deserves credit for naming the administrator to the deputies committee — one step below the principals committee. As the experience of past administrators demonstrates, being at the table enables a development voice to shape and influence policies in a meaningful way. It also means that USAID is no longer simply seen as a technocratic implementing agency, but rather as representing a distinct policy perspective.
Given the complex and transnational challenges that the Biden-Harris administration will confront, having the USAID administrator as a permanent member of the NSC will ensure that a development perspective will help shape the U.S. response to climate, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. support for allies, and efforts to counter a more assertive China. These issues — and others — demand a fulsome U.S. response, and one that is informed by the full suite of defense, diplomacy, and development.
Les Munson, Larry Nowels, and Tessie San Martin are the co-chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).