Courtesy Reuters

Diagnosing USAID

By Amy B. Frumin

To the Editor:

The former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrators J. Brian Atwood, M. Peter McPherson, and Andrew Natsios ("Arrested Development," November/December 2008) explain that despite the U.S. government's having elevated the status of development to be on par with defense and diplomacy, USAID has been so emasculated over the last several decades that it is not an effective member of the triumvirate of U.S. national security strategy tools. The only solution the authors see is a wholesale reform of the institutions of foreign assistance, including making USAID an independent department, creating a National Security Council position focused on foreign assistance, and unifying all sources of foreign assistance under USAID.

Reform is needed. However, as a former USAID field officer in Afghanistan, I propose a less Washington-centric reform strategy. From Washington's political and strategic perspective, it does not make sense to elevate the bureaucratic status of USAID when there is so little faith in the organization to begin with. The authors themselves claim USAID is dysfunctional. Congress demonstrated its lack of confidence in USAID by increasing the Department of Defense's allocation of official development assistance funds from 3.5 percent to 21.7 percent between 1999 and 2005. In that same period, USAID's share of official development assistance decreased from 65 percent to less than 40 percent.

Prioritizing bureaucratic reform in Washington also does not make sense from a national security perspective. In a world of unconventional modern warfare, fragile states characterized by corruption and poverty are now the enemy, and reconstruction and development are the tools to combat them. Because USAID cannot carry out these tasks effectively, the military has been charged with doing more of them. Piling another mandate that requires an entirely new skill set onto an overstretched military not only distracts it from its main task of fighting wars but also underutilizes the organization established to address these issues: USAID. The United States cannot afford to wait until Washington works through the political tangle of reforming foreign assistance to make USAID more functional in the field.

After decades of scrutiny and downsizing, USAID has become an anemic organization, with a fifth the number of staff it had in the 1960s and a fraction of the agility and autonomy it had when it was better funded. Reform should begin by giving USAID the human and financial resources it needs to succeed in the field. Of course, political will is required to make these changes, and that will must come from the president's office.

AMY B. FRUMIN
International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

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