Leadership Vacancy Raises Fears About USAID's Future

Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Nairobi as she begins her trip to Africa.
Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Nairobi as she begins her trip to Africa. (By Sayyid Azim -- Associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

NAIROBI, Aug. 4 -- As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton begins a seven-country African trip with a visit to Kenya, the main U.S. foreign aid agency is in limbo, entering its seventh month without a permanent director despite pledges by the Obama administration to expand development assistance and improve its effectiveness in poor countries.

Clinton has backed the use of "smart power" -- employing a full range of economic, military, political and development tools in U.S. foreign policy -- but many aid experts are questioning whether the U.S. Agency for International Development could lose clout under her plans. While Clinton has championed additional personnel for USAID, aid groups worry that the once-autonomous agency could be swallowed up in the State Department, with long-term development goals losing out to short-term political aims.

"Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said how important development is. Increasingly, it's a painful contrast between their rhetoric and the reality of having no leadership" at USAID, said Carol Lancaster, interim dean of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, who served as deputy administrator of the aid agency under President Bill Clinton.

The Obama administration inherited a foreign aid system starved of civilian experts and burdened by a bewildering array of mandates. USAID's full-time staff shrank by 40 percent over the past two decades, but the assistance it oversees doubled, to $13.2 billion in 2008. The agency has a skeleton crew of technical experts, with four engineers for the entire world, Clinton noted recently. Increasingly, USAID has become a conduit for money flowing to contractors, who have limited supervision from the agency.

As USAID has weakened, foreign assistance programs have proliferated across government agencies, especially the military, causing duplication and confusion. Meanwhile, aid budgets have been saddled with presidential directives, "buy America" provisions and congressional earmarks that raise the cost of aid and reduce its effectiveness, development specialists say.

"In the USAID budget, every dollar has three purposes: help build an Air Force base, support the University of Mississippi, get some country to vote our way," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of the aid group Bread for the World, describing the plethora of political claims attached to aid. The development program, he said, "is a mess."

The waste of billions of U.S. reconstruction dollars in Iraq and the growing role of development in the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan have given new urgency to long-running debates about reforming the aid system.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to double overall U.S. foreign assistance to $50 billion and build a "modern development agency." His campaign literature said that "no single person . . . (is) responsible for directing and managing what should be one of our most powerful foreign policy tools."

While development groups and experts have welcomed Obama's boosting of the assistance budget, many are "very, very disappointed" with the lack of progress in reforming the aid system, said Brian Atwood, who headed USAID in the 1990s. The frustration of USAID employees bubbled up at a town hall meeting at the agency that Clinton held last month.

"When will we be getting political leadership in our agency?" an employee asked Clinton. "And I think we'd also like to hear from you why it's taking so long. I think you know we're very concerned about this."

Obama administration officials say the lack of a USAID leader does not indicate a lack of attention to development. The administration has requested in next year's budget 350 new positions for the agency, which currently has a full-time staff of 2,200.

In the next few weeks, the White House plans to bring together the roughly two dozen government agencies involved in assistance in an effort to shape development policy, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

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