The Cable

Obama Taps Insider Gayle Smith to Lead USAID

President Obama picks Gayle Smith, a member of his inner circle, to take over USAID.

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President Barack Obama has tapped a longtime Africa expert and member of his inner circle to run USAID, a move that likely will draw the strapped aid agency closer to the White House.

Gayle Smith currently serves as a National Security Council senior director for development and has worked closely over the years with Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser. The former journalist also has ties to former President Bill Clinton, and worked in his administration as the NSC’s Africa chief and adviser to USAID.

If confirmed by the Senate, Smith will run a $22 billion agency that has been stung by scandal in recent years, and is stretched thin in responding to disasters worldwide.

Last year, USAID was accused of managing a social media account that urged young Cubans to overthrow the Castro regime — even though the Obama administration is now trying to rebuild diplomatic ties with Havana. Months later, USAID chief Rajiv Shah resigned hours before the historic breakthrough between the U.S. and Cuba, and gave no public reason for his departure. He had headed USAID for five years.

In 2013, multiple investigations revealed that between 2006 and 2012, 20 percent of malaria drugs sent to Africa by the agency that cost $60 million ended up on the black market.

But Shah, a medical doctor, also had success, most notably the response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa last year that led to a series of medical breakthroughs, including a new protective suit for medical workers. Right now, the agency is working around the world, responding to the fallout from the earthquake in Tibet and the refugee crisis in Syria, among other crises.

In a statement Thursday, Obama said Smith’s “energy and passion have been instrumental in guiding America’s international development policy.” Secretary of State John Kerry also lauded Smith for her “dogged commitment to ensuring that when change is necessary, we find a way to make it happen.”

Aid groups praised the appointment, which must be confirmed by the Senate. U.S. Global Leadership Coalition President Liz Schrayer said, “Her relationships and respect with key stakeholders – across the community, U.S. government, and globe – will ensure a smooth transition and enable her to hit the ground running.” Oxfam America’s vice president for policy and campaigns Paul O’Brien also praised the appointment.

Smith’s Africa expertise will be needed as USAID  focuses new efforts there. Early in his second term Obama announced the $7 billion Power Africa initiative aimed at expanding electricity access across the continent, but the plan has, so far, had limited success.

Photo Credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

 

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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