By Bradley Graham and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 20, 2006
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced a barrage of pointed questions yesterday from employees at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who expressed concerns that an administration move to centralize the management of foreign assistance will weaken the agency and place short-term political goals ahead of long-term development aims.
Rice took the unusual step of holding a town-hall-style meeting with hundreds of USAID employees after announcing the creation of a high-level State Department position to oversee all foreign aid programs.
Rice said the position -- director of foreign assistance -- is intended to bring greater coherence and efficiency to a broad patchwork of often overlapping assistance programs that now total about $19 billion. Randall L. Tobias, a former pharmaceuticals industry executive who has headed the administration's global AIDS program for the past 2 1/2 years, was named to fill the position and also to serve as the new USAID administrator.
The moves eased fears at USAID that the agency, set up in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy, would be merged into the State Department. But it prompted other worries, voiced in the questioning, that USAID's strategic planning role might end up diminished and that the agency's corps of experienced foreign aid specialists might be superseded by Foreign Service officers.
In her nearly hour-long appearance before a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the cavernous Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium next to USAID headquarters, Rice offered assurances that USAID will continue to play a key role in setting development strategy and that the administration will maintain a long-term view on development issues. "If we have a short-term perspective, we will fail," she said.
Several longtime USAID officials who heard Rice said in brief interviews afterward that her decision to hold the meeting was itself a significant gesture, but they also made clear that they will be withholding final judgment about the revamped management structure.
"The plan, in broad strokes, makes sense," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the interview was not authorized. "But the devil is going to be in the details."
The choice of Tobias drew some criticism. He has little experience in development issues other than the anti-AIDS effort, and some activists have faulted him for placing less emphasis on condom use than on abstinence to reduce the spread of AIDS, and for moving too slowly to promote inexpensive generic drugs.
But his supporters in the administration and in Congress stressed his management skills yesterday. "He has proven in his private and public sector responsibilities that he can successfully manage big organizations and complicated programs," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
The foreign assistance initiative is part of a series of moves announced by Rice this week under the banner "transformational diplomacy." Her plan, announced Wednesday, to redeploy U.S. diplomats from Europe to difficult assignments in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere received some backing yesterday from the American Foreign Service Association.
J. Anthony Holmes, the association's president, said his group supports the plan in general but is concerned about the security arrangements for diplomats who will be placed in large cities away from capitals. He also questioned whether the government has the financial resources to carry out Rice's vision.
Rice said 100 Foreign Service officers due to rotate into posts in Europe and Washington this summer will get new assignments. Holmes said a number of the officers are halfway through training for such difficult languages as Russian and Polish, and so the new assignments will be "very disruptive for families and individuals."