USAID Redesign Moves Forward, With No Drama

Unlike ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Mark Green has won over his workforce with his reorganization plan.

U.S. Marines stack hurricane relief supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development in Dominica on Sept 29, 2017. (Sgt. Melissa Martens/U.S. Marines via Getty Images)
U.S. Marines stack hurricane relief supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development in Dominica on Sept 29, 2017. (Sgt. Melissa Martens/U.S. Marines via Getty Images)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green is rolling out ambitious plans to reorganize his agency, and unlike a similar effort at the State Department, his initiative is enjoying widespread support among his workforce and lawmakers in Congress.

The proposed USAID reorganization plan, obtained by Foreign Policy, stands in stark contrast to bungled attempts by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to overhaul the State Department. Tillerson, who was fired in March, left behind demoralized career diplomats and incensed lawmakers, who felt shut out of an opaque overhaul plan that threatened to gut the department.

Green has walked a precarious political tightrope many deemed impossible: satisfying both the Trump administration and the international aid community, two sides that have often been at loggerheads. Green, according to seven current and former U.S. officials and nongovernmental organization experts, has managed to escape sharp criticism and shore up support within his own agency and among the international development community.

“It really stands in contrast to the way the process was run at the State Department,” says Jeremy Konyndyk, who served as director of USAID’s disaster assistance efforts from 2013 to 2017. “Mark Green has been really smart how he has set this up.”

While lawmakers have slammed President Donald Trump’s steep proposed budget cuts to USAID, they have praised Green and been receptive to his proposed reforms, dubbed the USAID “transformation.”

USAID, frustrated with the problems and pace of the redesign with its counterpart in Foggy Bottom, split off its transformation efforts with the State Department in January, in a rebuke to Tillerson.

Green’s efforts appear to be paying off on Capitol Hill. In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, some lawmakers slammed the administration’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts to USAID, which include a roughly 30 percent cut to economic development assistance, a 23 percent cut to global health programs, and an over 50 percent cut to USAID’s Africa budget.

“Have things gotten better in Africa and I just missed it?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID, in a hearing with Green. “The people who did these cuts clearly don’t know what they’re talking about — they spent zero time looking at Africa. They’re just making up numbers to balance the budget.”

Graham also promised to reverse the White House’s proposed cuts.

“Mark, we’re going to give you more money, it’s going to be closer to last year’s numbers, and we expect you to do a good job with that money,” Graham told Green.

The hearing covered the gamut of world crises USAID is grappling with, but it didn’t focus on Green’s push to overhaul the agency’s structure.

The proposed changes include consolidating some bureaus and creating two new associate administrator positions: One will oversee “relief, resilience, and response” — including food aid, humanitarian relief, and conflict prevention measures including a coordinator on countering violent extremism — and the other will be responsible for operations, budget, and management.

As USAID is structured now, 27 different positions report to the administrator, which aid experts saw as a key design flaw in USAID’s structure. “I don’t know what the administrator has time to do besides meeting with all those 27 people all day,” says George Ingram, a former senior USAID official and co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

The proposal also combines the budget and policy office, addressing what some saw as a disconnect. “Too often today, budget drives policy,” Ingram says. “We all know it should just be the reverse.”

Under the new organization chart, the Afghanistan-Pakistan office would be folded back into the Bureau for Asia, another proposal experts praised. “To treat them as their own entity is a little bit weird. Afghanistan and Pakistan can’t be seen in a vacuum,” says Thomas Hill, an expert with the Brookings Institution. “You have to think about them in the context of India and you have to think about them in the context of Iran.”

One proposal that has received some skepticism is the creation of a new Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, which appears to be a dumping ground for miscellaneous offices ranging from coordinators on education and indigenous peoples to technical staff from regional bureaus. It’s a messy grab-bag, but Ingram says if managed correctly, the bureau could become a “beehive of activity of innovation and technical expertise” for the regional bureaus to rely on as they build out new programs.

A USAID official tells FP the agency began a five-to-six-week consulting and feedback process with Congress, employees, and the wider NGO community on the proposed changes at the beginning of this month. The official says fully implementing the proposed changes, if Congress accepts them, could take 12 to 18 months, but the timeline varies for each specific proposal.

Behind closed doors, Green has made tacit jabs at the State Department’s redesign efforts, where Tillerson spent $12 million on outside consultants who sometimes charged more than $300 an hour to shepherd along the process, as Politico reported. Before he was fired, Tillerson pared down the redesign and redubbed it the “Impact Initiative” after catching flak from lawmakers and employees alike.

“Instead of relying on outside consultants, we’ve harnessed the talent and the experience that we have right here inside the agency,” Green told USAID officials at an internal meeting earlier this month. A transcript of the meeting was obtained by FP and other news outlets.

Officials and NGO experts also credit USAID senior advisor Jim Richardson for helping implement the reform proposals. Several officials say Richardson, former chief of staff to secretary of state nominee and outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo, is expected to move over to the State Department with Pompeo, but they caution that no formal announcements have been made.

Konyndyk says Green and his team have listened to career civil servants at the agency and sought perspectives from former officials and experts at think tanks in coming up with the redesign.  

“You can really see that at AID, the’ve done that long hard slog of engaging the career people,” he says.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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