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Why Is the United States Letting Its Best Foreign Aid Tool Fall Apart?

Why Is the United States Letting Its Best Foreign Aid Tool Fall Apart?

Gown shop owner Jill Andrews is probably not who you would have picked to solve one of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s most pressing problems during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. After all, the Baltimore dressmaker’s typical day is spent helping soon-to-be brides look like “a glass of milk,” as she told the Washington Post. But after responding to an email advertising a challenge (complete with prize money) to help USAID update the so-called “moon-suit” — the protective equipment that medical personnel wear to avoid infection while treating Ebola patients — Andrews became part of a team of experts charged with updating the gear for Liberia’s stifling climate. The problem they were facing was that, in the West African heat, medical personnel could only function in these suits for 20 minutes at a time; in addition to which, contaminated suits were clumsy to remove. But with her help, Andrews’s team developed a suit that not only fit better and was easier to take off, but could also be worn three times longer.

At a time when the Defense Department was on its way to spending nearly $1.5 billion to respond to the Ebola crisis, the USAID program fixed a critical glitch by offering prizes of $100,000 to $1 million to folks who could offer creative (and cost-effective) solutions for healthcare workers on the front lines of the Ebola crisis. Meaning that while the soldiers were in the headlines, America’s most effective and inexpensive agency arm for handling crises of this kind was working to a much-greater effect with much less fanfare. That’s because these civilian development and humanitarian aid professionals prefer to build local capacity instead of dependency. But USAID’s own capacity is on the cusp of crisis: Its staff is divided between veterans who are aging out and greenhorns, with too few in the middle. From the standpoint of national capacity, America has a development donut. And it’s a problem that so far has gone all but unnoticed by policymakers or the public.

The U.S. response to Ebola is a good example of why this matters.

Six months after the response was in full sway, the forces of Operation United Assistance, according to the New York Times, wound up treating only 28 patients at two of the 11 units they had built. Given the total military costs, that’s about $5 million per patient. The emphasis on constructing treatment centers may have made for good media optics, but it turned out to have much less impact than less expensive, more nimble measures USAID and NGOs took on the ground to halt the outbreak, among them public outreach and education. For one-fifth of that single-patient cost, the kind of public-private crowdsourcing initiative to fix a critical wardrobe malfunction, for instance, proved far more effective.

The “Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge,” launched in December 2014, is only one of many projects under USAID’s new Grand Challenges for Development program, a new business model featuring community-based, public-private approaches to foreign assistance as opposed to more conventional, top-fed, state-building programs. Also last fall, in partnership with Volvo, USAID launched work on 10 academies to provide industrial skills training to hundreds of students each year from Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and other countries. This part of the Middle East and North Africa Investment Initiative is aimed at disenfranchised youth, who are most vulnerable to recruitment by dark and illicit networks.

At the same time, with Shell Foundation and Berytech, USAID began investing in job entrepreneurial capitalization designed to create thousands of sustainable jobs through small enterprises in Iraq and Lebanon, both of which are under a heavy burden from the influx of Syrian refugees and the threat of the Islamic State. Then, in April, the agency revealed a multiyear plan to drive down the price of medicines and increase delivery speed, enabling millions more patients to be treated for the same cost. So far, these innovations — which cost in the millions compared to the billions the Pentagon spends to go after the threats emerging from those same problems in the same places — have scored reasonable successes. But the small scale of the wins shrinks in comparison to the challenges.

Part of the problem is money.

Since 2009, USAID has witnessed about a 16 percent real drop in funding while its partner across the Potomac fought a successful campaign to limit decreases to increases, as I reported a couple months back. But cash flow is the lesser matter. Even if USAID were to get all that money back since the 2010 Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development recognized development as evenly vital to U.S. national security and a strategic, economic, and moral imperative, USAID’s institutional lack of bandwidth prevents it from playing on par, no matter how compared. When I was a military liaison at USAID during the Haiti earthquake crisis in early 2010, we saw that USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance — America’s lead mechanism for humanitarian response — could keep no more than two dozen of its personnel for a Disaster Assistance Response Team there at one time. In only one location alone, it could field no more than the equivalent of an infantry platoon.

The real issue, therefore, is personnel. Over the last two decades, about one-third of USAID’s professional staff, according to the U.S Global Leadership Coalition, has gone away, leaving it more or less a contracting office for NGOs, who are fortunately doing much better aid work than before. But there’s only so much even they can do, given their likewise limited economies of scale — which is one reason a leading global power has an international development ministry to begin with.

At a briefing delivered at the National Defense University in April, USAID’s human capital and talent management staff reported that its agency has about 10,000 personnel total worldwide — about the same number of Army Civil Affairs officers, and about half the number in military bands. Just fewer than 4,000 of these, however, are Foreign Service officers or civil servants — the professional core of the agency. The remainder consists of non-American subject matter experts making up approximately 80 percent of overseas staffing, in addition to contractors. About one-third of senior officers in leadership positions at USAID are political appointees, further limiting the agency’s ability to maintain continuity and focus on a line of work that requires a more strategic, anticipatory approach — much like how Wayne Gretzky skated to where the puck was going, rather than where it was.

What really limits America’s capacity, however, to foster its long-term international standing and national security is a cavity of human capacity right in the middle of the organization. Over 50 percent of the agency’s professional workforce — its institutional memory — is now past retirement age. Over 70 percent of the remainder has less than five years of experience. That means a serious shortage of seasoned staff in a middle management mode — and a dearth of future, seasoned senior leaders.

A hiring “surge” after 9/11 peaked at about 280 people in 2010 has since dropped precipitously to about just over 50 per year. At the same time, attrition has been creeping up with generational turnover kicking in, the losses now outstripping the gains for the past two years. USAID has been employing a number of methods to mitigate the impact, including implementation of a five-year global workforce learning strategy to promote better on-the-job training and align skill sets while keeping staff operationally engaged — with only 10 percent of learning taking place in classrooms.

At that same time, USAID has made significant strides in effectiveness, in good part due to far-greater legislative scrutiny than goes to the Pentagon. In addition to installing organizational efficiencies and introducing initiatives like the Grand Challenges for Development program, Country Development Cooperation Strategies, and tapping into techies at Harvard College’s Developers for Development, a largely private initiative to leverage social impact technology for aid, the agency is doing a better job of demonstrating return on investment, as its annual performance reports have shown since 2007. It has even had the temerity to suspend an underperforming contractor. There are still improvements to be made, but despite those made so far, Uncle Sam’s development arm is still atrophying.

Not that anyone seems to care.

If the armed forces had anything half approaching the intensity of this kind of human resources handicap, the rafters would be rattling on Capitol Hill. Yet, hardly anyone in the nation’s body politic or the media seems to have noticed this crisis. President Barack Obama’s administration has so far shown less urgency in exhorting Congress to turn things around at USAID than it has in making the much-easier sell not to cut defense spending. And for pretty much the same reason: “national security,” suggesting it hasn’t taken to heart the broader understanding of the term it laid out in its own national security strategy that says the United States should be less dependent on military power.

Nor has the administration paid much attention to the well-established reality that humanitarian assistance and economic development are not done well by warfighters, as Iraq and Afghanistan showed. Over two years before the Ebola response, a General Accountability Office report spelled out that too many military-led humanitarian relief efforts have proven outright ineffective, if not cost-inefficient.

No doubt there is a key role for the military in disaster relief. The Pentagon’s Joint Humanitarian Assessment Survey Team is working very effectively with USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, but the military’s role is supporting, not being supported, in this line of work. It’s not the military’s core competency, although the Universal Joint Task List considers it an important mission.

“Everyone who has done stability operations jobs likes to think they know how to do development,” Blue Glass Development’s Karen Walsh told an audience of military students at the Naval War College in early May, “but I’m willing to bet hardly any of you have ever had any real training or experience in it. There’s no such thing as a Military Occupational Specialty code for development. This has to change if you work in a field with trained professionals.”

The development donut debilitates the ability of the United States to go after the center of gravity — the drivers of conflict and instability rather than the threats emanating from them — of modern people-centric struggles of identity seen in the Middle East and Africa. Governance and civil society that is closer to communities than capitals also form the locus where the United States and its partners can seize an all-too-important strategic opportunity to get at vital gaps and deny them to extremist groups. The capabilities to address these gaps do not reside in the military — they reside with developers, in and out of government.

Throwing money at problems is almost never an optimal solution. Development, in fact, is not as money intensive as defense. “We’re smarter about this because we have less money than the military,” Walsh added. Nevertheless, the kind of institutional buildup of the development sector with the same seriousness as to what happened to the defense sector in the 1980s might be in order. But nothing approaching that is in the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, as Gordon Adams explained earlier in Foreign Policy.

Even if Congress were to appropriate all of the recommendations in the State Department’s earlier Diplomacy 3.0 and USAID’s Development Leadership Initiatives, it would amount to only 1,500 more staff at the two agencies — hardly an uptick in their rosters. Both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as the aisle, should demand the same kind of rigor the General Accounting Office and many think tanks are devoting to “national security” issues to a systemic and strategic look at the nation’s capability to get at the sources of conflict and instability, as well as create new economic opportunities.

Then they could show USAID the money. The nation’s global development budget this coming fiscal year — covering Development Assistance, Global Health Programs, International Disaster Assistance, Food for Peace, Transition Initiatives, Complex Crises Fund, and organizational administration — will be somewhere around $22 billion, or about half of what the Defense Department spends on petroleum, oils, and lubricants for all its equipment. That does not represent a serious investment in something that, as the president put it, demonstrates how America leads by the example of “our values.”

Development has often been seen as something nice-to-do. That has never been true, but less so now than then. It is part of the core business of a country the world continues to rely on, but now also relies more on the world — a business linked to peace and prosperity as well as to security. Whether a job for dressmakers or developers, it should not be a boutique industry.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Correction, June 23, 2015: The name of the USAID initiative related to country-based strategic planning is “Country Development Cooperation Strategies.” A previous version of this article mistakenly called it “Country Directed Collaboration Strategies.”