Report

USAID Slow to Make Diversity Promises Come True

Staff fear ambitious goals won’t trickle down to the rank and file

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Humanitarian aid supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development
Airport personnel check humanitarian aid supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development in were unloaded from a plane at the airport in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on Sept. 2, 2014. Safin Hamed/AFP/GettyImages

After winning office in no small part thanks to Black voters, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to put racial equity at the heart of the administration’s ambitious agenda, incorporating it in everything from the COVID-19 pandemic response to climate change and his goals for the federal workforce, aiming to diversify Washington’s conspicuously un-diverse national security establishment.

On his first day in office, Biden overturned a ban imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump on diversity and inclusion training for government employees, and in June he signed a sweeping executive order to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in the federal workplace. But at lower levels, among rank-and-file federal workers at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, and other federal agencies, those lofty promises have confronted the realities of reforming unwieldy bureaucracies.

In a microcosm of the wider challenges faced by the Biden administration, nine current and three former USAID officials told Foreign Policy that despite initial excitement about the administration’s focus on racial equity, they had become frustrated by the slow pace of change at their agency. 

After winning office in no small part thanks to Black voters, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to put racial equity at the heart of the administration’s ambitious agenda, incorporating it in everything from the COVID-19 pandemic response to climate change and his goals for the federal workforce, aiming to diversify Washington’s conspicuously un-diverse national security establishment.

On his first day in office, Biden overturned a ban imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump on diversity and inclusion training for government employees, and in June he signed a sweeping executive order to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in the federal workplace. But at lower levels, among rank-and-file federal workers at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, and other federal agencies, those lofty promises have confronted the realities of reforming unwieldy bureaucracies.

In a microcosm of the wider challenges faced by the Biden administration, nine current and three former USAID officials told Foreign Policy that despite initial excitement about the administration’s focus on racial equity, they had become frustrated by the slow pace of change at their agency. 

They point to a lack of enforcement of existing policies and complex systems for deciding promotions and assignments that have left staff of color feeling like they are being unjustly held back and have disincentivized people from speaking out. While the State Department has tapped a senior former diplomat to be the department’s first chief diversity officer, USAID has no analogous envoy with the same level of clout, although it is working to create a similar role. Government data shows that employees of color at USAID are promoted at significantly lower rates than their white counterparts, and some offices and bureaus are less diverse than they were more than a decade ago. The aid agency also lacks diversity in who leads its key geographic and functional bureaus, at the heart of the agency’s substantive policy and work abroad.

USAID, much like the State Department, has been a laggard on diversity and inclusion, a state of affairs that long predated both the Biden and Trump administrations. 

A government watchdog that reviewed the aid agency’s workforce from 2002 to 2018 found mixed results on its diversity and inclusion efforts. The proportion of African Americans working at USAID fell from 26 percent in 2002 to 21 percent in 2018, while the proportion of Hispanic employees rose from just 3 percent to 6 percent. The Government Accountability Office study also found that racial or ethnic minorities in the civil service at USAID were 31 to 41 percent less likely to get a promotion than their white counterparts in similar jobs or with similar years of service. The study also found that the office that oversees diversity and inclusion efforts, USAID’s Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD), was chronically understaffed, with vacancy rates in some OCRD divisions higher than 50 percent. 

While those problems predated the Trump administration, a batch of controversial USAID appointees and mismanagement during his presidency exacerbated those ills, current and former USAID officials said.

The Trump White House and USAID faced backlash and internal criticism over several controversial appointees—including a deputy White House liaison who characterized feminism as a “civilizational calamity”—that they said damaged the morale and the outside reputation of the aid agency. (That official was later ousted from her job.) USAID also halted all of its diversity and inclusion training in the fall of 2020, after an executive order from Trump that prohibited discussions in the federal workforce on issues such as systemic racism and unconscious bias. The aid agency reinstated those diversity and training programs days after Biden took office.

Current and former USAID officials conceded that the Biden administration faced an uphill battle in course-correcting a massive bureaucracy, particularly after the Trump era. But many staff expressed skepticism that early pledges from the administration would make a real difference for rank-and-file career aid workers. Several also expressed concern that without a profound shift in the way diversity and equity are addressed within the agency, any gains could be quickly lost in the event that Trump or someone similar is elected in 2024. 

While all federal agencies say they are seeking to have a workforce that looks more like America, USAID has some unique challenges with its complicated hiring practices, which encompass civil and foreign service officers as well as a variety of contractors and implementing partners.

Senior leaders at the agency have repeatedly stressed they are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some 40 percent of USAID appointees identify as people of color, a USAID official said, while over half are women. The agency is also working to hire diversity advisors for all bureaus, offices, and missions, and to establish an agencywide scorecard to keep tabs on key objectives.

“While the Administrator and much of our senior team have only been here a few months and understand that real structural change takes time, all of us would like to see progress on increasing DEIA across the agency move faster, and we are committed to doing all we can to expedite that change,” said a senior USAID official, speaking on background.

“While career staff have had years and decades to think about these issues, it does take a little bit of time to hear from everyone and to understand different people’s perspectives. These are the conversations we’ve been having since day one so we can make the most informed decisions and be able to make the structural changes that we want,” they added.

The problems at USAID mirror those at the State Department, which also has one of the worst track records on diversity among U.S. federal agencies. But in April, the Biden administration appointed a seasoned former senior career diplomat, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, to be the State Department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer to tackle the challenges in Foggy Bottom. USAID doesn’t yet have anyone in a similar position, though the agency is set—pending congressional approval—to name its first chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer within the Office of the Administrator. The role is expected to be filled by a political appointee. USAID also has yet to appoint a fully fledged OCRD director; Ismael Martinez holds the position in an acting capacity.

But even a political appointee charged with boosting diversity may not be the answer, according to many USAID officials. It takes time for outsiders to come to grips with the agency’s issues, and few would be ready to address the career challenges of apolitical career officials at USAID. 

In a letter sent to USAID chief Samantha Power in late September, obtained by Foreign Policy, over three dozen groups from within the agency representing staff from minority groups and an internal equity and inclusion committee called for the position to be filled by a career civil servant—not a political appointee—to cement the agency’s new course regardless of what happens in future administrations.

“To ensure that DEIA is a long-lasting pillar of USAID operations during this administration and beyond, it is critical that the [chief diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility officer] position be afforded the protections and tenure of the civil service,” the letter said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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

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