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Senate poobahs to Obama: What’s up with USAID?

Senate poobahs to Obama: What’s up with USAID?

Nine months into the Obama administration, there is still no nominee for the post of administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and now the heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are sounding the alarm.

In a letter to President Obama, first reported on by Congressional Quarterly, Senators John Kerry, D-MA, and Richard Lugar, R-IN, decry the vacancy at the top of USAID, noting it as the only major agency in the government without a captain at a time when American leadership in development around the world is more needed than ever.

"We urge you to nominate an Administrator for USAID expeditiously," Kerry and Lugar, the committee’s chair and ranking member, wrote in the letter dated Sept. 18. "We recommend that you give strong consideration to selecting a candidate that has already gone through the vetting process and that has experience in global development. We believe that time is of the essence, and that the longer we wait for a new leader for the Agency, the more serious the problems become."

The senators also complained that USAID has been shut out of the interagency processes related to U.S. policy in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Their criticisms are echoed by the development community in Washington, which is nervously waiting for the Obama administration to make some key decisions about the role and stature for USAID and the development agenda going forward.

"[Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton sees her legacy as elevating the development mission, putting it alongside the diplomacy mission," said J. Brian Atwood, USAID Administrator during the Clinton administration. "But the administration is laboring under unreasonably high expectations about what can be accomplished."

There are two administration reviews ongoing right now related to development policy. A Presidential Study Directive (PSD) on Global Development Policy is being conducted by the National Security Council, led by Gayle Smith and Jeremy Weinstein, and development policy is a key part of the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which is Foggy Bottom’s version of the overarching self introspection found in a similar process over at the Pentagon.

The PSD, which nobody outside government has seen, isn’t expected until late this year and the QDDR won’t come out until maybe next June. In it will be some key guidance on whether USAID will be given the authority and independence that most development professionals are hoping.

Some major decisions about the future of USAID are expected in the reviews, such as: Will the agency be spun off from the State Department and be given cabinet-level status? If not, will the new USAID director be able to report directly to Clinton or will he be forced to go through Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Jack Lew? Will USAID get its own budget authority, preventing the siphoning off of funds for other State Department missions? Will the agency be able to maintain a robust policy staff or will it be relegated to just implementation responsibilities?

"The biggest fear in the development community is that State views USAID as implementation only, so it becomes a tool of diplomatic strategy as opposed to a development agency," said Atwood, adding that even inside the USAID bureaucracy that tendency persists.

If the USAID administrator has to go through Lew or doesn’t have distinct control over the agency’s funds, that would undermine the credibility of the organization when trying to deal with foreign governments and organizations, said Atwood, who added that the absence of a clear administration development policy also makes the job of USAID director more risky for potential appointees, who may not want to put in a position where they are set up for failure due to lack of power.

There are two USAID related bills sitting in Congress today. Kerry and Lugar have a bill aimed at rebuilding the agency, increasing funding and updating the authorizations established over 20 years ago, "which have nothing to do with the modern day situation," according to Atwood.

House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, has a bill in his chamber that would call on the administration to put forth a comprehensive global development policy.

There are several names being rumored as possible appointees for the job of USAID administrator but no indications that administration is leaning towards one person or another. They include the NSC’s Smith and Center for Global Development president Nancy Birdsall. Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health chairman Paul Farmer, an early favorite, dropped out of the running and in August was named the U.N.’s deputy special envoy to Bill Clinton on Haiti.

"It’s a frustrating situation because we do have a lot of senior-level attention focused on development," said Erin Thornton, Global Policy Director at ONE, a development-focused advocacy organization. "It’s just that you don’t have anyone whose sole job it is to lead that forward. So our main goal right now is without real leadership."