Sudanese workers unload U.S. food aid destined for South Sudan. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

Andrew Natsios was USAID administrator and a special envoy to Sudan under President George W. Bush and a director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance under President George H.W. Bush. He served in the Persian Gulf War as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He is a professor at the Bush School of Government and director of the Scowcroft Institute at Texas A&M University.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has set in motion a plan to merge all or parts of the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department and close 40 percent of USAID missions abroad, theoretically to “pursue greater efficiencies.” While the Trump administration’s proposed 30 percent cuts to foreign aid have been the focus of Washington debate, the misguided absorption of USAID into State is a much graver danger to the effectiveness of the U.S. government’s aid program. Budget cuts can be quickly restored, particularly in the face of new and unexpected crises. A merger, however, could permanently diminish our ability to help and save lives around the world.

The State Department and USAID are often conflated as parts of America’s “soft power” apparatus. And it’s true that in the broadest sense they seek to, as a joint mission statement puts it, “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world, and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

But beyond that they are dissimilar in every important way: The tasks they perform, what they value, their operating principles and how they carry out their work are profoundly different. I have seen these differences up close for nearly three decades, as a USAID executive, diplomat and military officer. Combining the two institutions would be comparable to merging Microsoft with ExxonMobil. And if this forced marriage were to occur, rather than creating “efficiencies,” it would make our development programs less effective and our emergency relief less responsive, while detrimentally politicizing our foreign aid.

The core mission of the State Department is to manage the United States’ relationships with other countries and international institutions through policymaking and diplomacy. To the limited extent that it gets involved in foreign aid programs, it views that assistance as a means to an end: improving America’s image abroad, strengthening its position in diplomatic negotiations or building relationships with strategic partners.

The mission of USAID, on the other hand, is to manage effective and accountable programs that help societies transform internally. For its development professionals and disaster relief officers, lifting people out of poverty, stabilizing failed and fragile states, and saving lives are ends in themselves. USAID programs often help further other broad policy goals as a secondary result, but subordinating them to short-term political objectives increases failure rates.

Another point of contrast: The State Department is a highly centralized and hierarchical organization that prioritizes caution over efficiency. It carefully analyzes the second-, third- and fourth-order consequences of any given action to avoid what could be catastrophic mistakes in foreign policy. The secretary of state makes all the major policy decisions.

On the other hand, USAID ranks among the best-managed and most-accountable agencies in the federal government, according to the 2016 Federal Invest in What Works Index, published by the public-management research center Results for America. And its short-term disaster relief programs are arguably the most powerful and best-managed of any donor government or multilateral institution in the world.

If diplomacy resembles a chess game, running a development agency is more like managing a venture capital fund. USAID wants to maximize the return on its investments. It also takes risks, knowing, as a venture capitalist does, that some investments will fail and others will be hugely successful.

USAID’s disaster relief, by design and necessity, depends less on deliberation in Washington and more on rapid decisions at the lowest operational level. After getting deployment approval from the U.S. ambassador in a country, USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Teams have broad discretionary power, so aid can be mobilized overnight. As I write, four teams are fighting famine in four conflict countries — Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan — trying to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Such efforts, as Alex de Waal notes in a new essay and forthcoming book, have helped contribute to a global decline in famine and famine deaths since World War II.

A final distinction between State and USAID is worth mentioning: The State Department recruits generalists, who learn to be diplomats through on-the-job experience. USAID, meanwhile, hires specialists who are generally required to have advanced degrees, and it conducts continuous training so people can stay current with their technical disciplines.

If USAID is absorbed into State and the personnel functions merge, the result will be predictably damaging. We would see USAID’s expertise atrophy, as its advanced-degree requirement is phased out and positions are opened to foreign- and civil-service generalists. We would see an agency with efficient management overtaken by a department with often cumbersome management systems. We would see humanitarian assistance become politicized and response time slow to a crawl. Our progress toward eliminating famine could be reversed.

Past episodes when the State Department has subordinated aid programs to diplomatic purposes have ended in tragedy or failure.

For example, in 1988 and 1989, southern Sudan was struck by a terrible famine. The State Department’s East Africa office tried to stop the humanitarian response through USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace Office, because it feared that the aid effort would damage relations with Sudan’s government in Khartoum. (Northern and southern Sudan were engaged in a civil war, and the government was attempting to starve the south into surrender.) The OFDA director went around the State Department hierarchy to appeal to Secretary of State George Schultz, who reversed the decision and allowed USAID to mobilize a massive aid effort — but six months late. More than 100,000 southern Sudanese children died because of the delay.

Similarly, during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s, the State Department Office of Korean Affairs used USAID food aid to entice the troglodyte North Korean government into negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program. This delayed and compromised the integrity of USAID’s food aid programs in the famine. North Korea stonewalled the effort, refusing to allow monitoring to ensure that the food aid would not be stolen, and ultimately, it let 2 1 / 2 million of its people perish. The nuclear negotiations were, and remain, an abysmal failure.

While it is certainly true that USAID’s disaster relief operations can improve the image of the United States and strengthen relations with countries in crisis, making that the purpose of emergency relief, instead of an ancillary consequence, could damage our image, worsen our relationships and lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. That is particularly true when it’s the government of a country that is the cause of the suffering. When a government is killing its own people, U.S. disaster relief programs should focus on saving them, not improving relations with their government.

Subordinating USAID’s goals to the State Department’s agenda also has proved disastrous in development work. State Department diplomats (and U.S. military officers) favor rapid and visible results from aid programs, while any experienced USAID (or nongovernmental organization) officer knows that the more rapidly development programs are implemented, the less sustainable they are (without local buy-in, the programs collapse once the funding stops) and, often, the more visible the program, the less effective it is.

For example, a 2016 audit of $3.9 billion in U.S. development aid to Pakistan, where the State Department led project and budget decisions, found that “State’s short-term focus did not advance USAID’s development objectives.” The State Department initiated a series of “high-visibility infrastructure projects intended to improve Pakistani perceptions of the United States,” including dams and a hospital. But these projects were not self-sustaining, and they ultimately failed because the Pakistani government didn’t have the resources to operate and maintain them.

The same thing has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the State Department and Defense Department have put a similar focus on building physical infrastructure rather than developing the institutions needed to make it work. A school building, while needed, is the least important part of education; far more critical are trained teachers who show up for work each day and get paid on time, motivated students with parental support, and a strong curriculum.

Another warning from the past can be found in the State Department’s 1999 absorption of the U.S. Information Agency, which had been effective during the Cold War in image battles with the Soviet Union. The Heritage Foundation properly criticized the merger. “USIA was a small, generally well-managed independent U.S. government organization with an efficient finance and personnel system,” a 2003 Heritage report stated. “It was folded into a ‘troubled cabinet agency’ where travel vouchers sometimes take six weeks to process, budgets of small offices are often raided by larger bureaus, and hard assets and personnel are gobbled up more through internal political designs than by senior management decisions or congressional intent.” The public-diplomacy functions of the U.S. government have not recovered.

Nor will the government’s aid programs if the State Department absorbs USAID. Somewhat ironically, Heritage is backing the current merger proposal. By the time think tanks get around to determining that it’s a misguided idea, it may be too late to save our aid programs.

The United States needs to invest in foreign aid to protect itself from the chaos spreading across the world. We should be strengthening our aid programs and infrastructure, not weakening them. The State Department should focus on conducting diplomacy, which is what it excels at, and USAID should do its job as development professionals with more independence, not less.

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