The Cable

Critics Riled by USAID Nominee’s Tenure Under Bill Clinton

Critics of Gayle Smith's tenure in the Clinton White House are lining up to blast her Africa policy.


Former President Bill Clinton is casting a long shadow over Gayle Smith, who has been tapped by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Smith, currently the National Security Council’s senior director for development, served in the Clinton White House as an advisor on Africa and USAID. In the days since her nomination was announced last week, critics of her work for Clinton are surfacing.

The loudest voice has been Howard French, a veteran journalist and author who has reported throughout Africa and has long jousted with Smith over her Africa policies. He issued a series of Tweets blasting Smith:

Additionally, economist William Easterly told Quartz that Smith’s relationship with Ethiopia’s late U.S.-backed dictator, Meles Zenawi, was “longstanding and excessively friendly.” He said Smith’s nomination reflects the false notion that development policies that advance U.S. national security interests are good for needy nations.

“Giving development aid to an autocrat because he is a valuable ally on the war on terror is NOT [sic] good for development, it is the opposite of development,” Easterly said. Ghanaian economist George Ayittey also blasted Smith for her relationship with Zenawi.

White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan directed Foreign Policy to the White House’s previous statements of support for Smith.

A former White House official on Africa issues who has also worked with USAID and who spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about the nomination dismissed concerns about Smith’s time in the Clinton administration as “crusty and a little bit outdated.”

“A lot of the criticisms date back more than 15 years,” the former official said. “I haven’t seen any of the criticisms that are much more recent.”

The former official also said it’s not fair to focus on Smith’s work in Africa when her current White House post is far more globally focused — which would be a plus at USAID, an agency that has worldwide reach.

The top job at USAID, vacated by Rajiv Shah after controversy over democracy promotion programs in Cuba, has been empty for four months. Smith is experienced enough to capably defend the agency to lawmakers.

Yet she might be “out of gas,” the former official said. Smith has been doing “really high-pressure, demanding jobs that can grind you down over time.”

“I’m not sure if there were more compelling candidates out there,” the source said, adding that if Smith’s tenure stretches into the next administration, “I hope she takes a six-month vacation.”

Photo credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

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