Foreign Assistance: Time to Sharpen a Vital Diplomatic Tool

Here are eight recommendations to rationalize U.S. foreign assistance and, thus, greatly increase its effectiveness.


One wing of the Presidential Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince collapsed during the January 2010 earthquake.
Courtesy of Thomas C. Adams

When the U.S. Agency for International Development was established in 1961 during the Kennedy administration, the idea was to create a skilled and muscular foreign aid agency out of an existing apparatus that had become bureaucratically fragmented and not particularly effective. Evidence of the importance that Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson assigned to this effort can be seen in their selection of USAID’s second Administrator, David Bell, who left his job as director of the Bureau of the Budget for what he considered a far more important position: USAID Administrator.

In the last three decades, however, we have returned to a highly fragmented system of foreign assistance, with some 20 agencies managing what are in many cases overlapping programs. The next administration has a good opportunity to rationalize the way the United States administers its foreign assistance and, thus, greatly increase its effectiveness.

Every president wants to have a strong foreign policy. Though many in Congress seem utterly hostile to foreign aid, the reality is that behind closed doors there is broad bipartisan support for foreign assistance as a key element of advancing U.S. foreign policy goals. And with the American people increasingly wary of large-scale military intervention, there is a desire to use diplomatic tools over military ones.

As these leaders recognize—fallacious or under-informed critiques of “nation-building” notwithstanding—U.S. foreign aid programs that build effective governments, reduce rampant disease, offer education and hope for the future, increase agricultural production and provide essential services from water to energy can reduce the conflicts and ungoverned spaces that threaten U.S. security, in addition to reflecting the humanitarian instincts of the American people.

U.S. Smart Power Undermined

The fragmentation of U.S. foreign assistance has been the result of congressional actions—particularly the efforts of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) after the Republicans gained a majority in the U.S. Senate in 1994—as well as actions by recent administrations.

With the American people increasingly wary of large-scale military intervention, there is a desire to use diplomatic tools over military ones.

Helms failed in his goal of abolishing USAID, but he and others succeeded in weakening its capacity so that by the end of the George W. Bush administration in 2008, USAID had only a little more than 1,000 Foreign Service officers—less than half of the professional diplomatic staff it had 20 years earlier. U.S. assistance was further fragmented during the second Bush administration with the creation of large new assistance programs, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (known as PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, outside of USAID. It was apparently easier to create something new than to try to fix an existing agency.

Over the years USAID’s work has been hampered by dozens of amendments to the original Foreign Assistance Act to the point where a casual reader of the law might wonder how anything at all can get done. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in 2007 (in his Landon Lecture), after the end of the Cold War the United States “gutted” its civilian foreign affairs agencies, especially the State Department and USAID, and thus its smart power. Rebuilding these institutions takes time.

When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq called for massive foreign assistance to stabilize these countries after U.S.-led invasions, the result was limited achievement at a very high cost, due largely to the fact that there was no single, robust assistance agency with the kind of staffing needed to take on urgent and complex reconstruction tasks. A secondary problem was a lack of understanding by senior policymakers of what foreign assistance can accomplish and the timelines involved. At times State and the Department of Defense seemed interested only in maximizing the amount and speed of money going out the door.

Things have gotten better since then under the Obama administration, but only marginally. Congress has made more funding available in flexible accounts and USAID staffing has increased, although not to the levels needed.

USAID provided materials for temporary shelters for many of the more than one million Haitians left homeless following the 2010 earthquake.
Courtesy of Thomas C. Adams

Steps to Improve Foreign Assistance

Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s world food security initiative that is led by USAID, helps empower women in Guatemala to increase agricultural production and earn more for their families.

Here are eight recommendations for the next administration on how to improve foreign assistance:

1. Select the leadership of USAID carefully. The USAID Administrator and his or her top subordinates have extremely difficult jobs. The next administration should insist on hiring only top-flight political appointees to staff senior positions at USAID, men and women with the same résumés they consider for the top positions at State and the Defense Department. In particular, there is a special need at USAID to appoint individuals to senior positions who understand how to work with Congress. Equally important, the political leadership must have both an understanding and a willingness to represent the development-foreign policy linkages. Things do not go well in the agency when its leaders view themselves only as technicians.

2. Keep rebuilding USAID’s capacities. Although the staffing increases sought at the end of the Bush administration and throughout the Obama administration have increased USAID’s capacities, the agency still needs more employees in the field and in Washington designing effective programs, contracting, and handling grants, inspections, evaluations and other inherently governmental functions. Due to personnel shortages, too many of these duties have been ceded to contractors, resulting in some embarrassing failures. In addition to hiring more staff, training needs to be increased, and the limits on using program monies for operating expenses should be abolished by Congress. Foreign Service officers at both State and USAID still only receive a fraction of the professional training that their military counterparts receive. And a necessary functional skill that all USAID officers must have is technical oversight, which requires training, experience and mentoring. Increased training needs to be geared to produce 21st-century foreign aid officers who, for example, better understand how to meld governmental and private-sector resources for optimal impact.

3. Begin consolidating functions. With few exceptions, the next administration should migrate all assistance programs back to USAID for implementation. This will take some time to accomplish, but the benefits of having all health, democracy, rule of law, economic growth, environmental and other programs in one place will result in economies of scale for back-office functions such as procurement and contracting—which are often lacking at other agencies—and make coordination easier. There are some exceptions such as military assistance programs, since the Department of Defense has robust capacity to implement these in coordination with State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. The U.S. military should also continue to deliver a narrow set of emergency humanitarian and relief operations. But its recent uneven efforts to directly administer other types of foreign aid and its discomfort in so doing are another argument for a more robust USAID. This will require greater coordination between the two agencies, which has already begun.

Exactly how the MCC, the Trade and Development Agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the functions of several State bureaus should be rejoined with USAID needs careful analysis, but the trend must be toward harmonization rather than fragmentation. The next administration, moreover, should examine whether Treasury’s carefully guarded management of the U.S. government’s relationship with international financial institutions should not more appropriately be managed through USAID, as well.

Our best global friends and partners are countries that have received U.S. assistance since 1945.

4. Integrate foreign assistance and foreign policy. Those involved in defining policy at State and USAID need to be better integrated at all levels. Ideally, State and USAID desk officers would be located near each other and jointly participate in planning with DOD and other counterparts. And the respective State and USAID policy shops need to work to ensure that their approaches are mutually reinforcing.

State officers need to better understand how foreign assistance really works; and USAID’s officers need to be kept abreast of our changing political and economic goals by country and region. This needs to be done both in Washington and abroad. Exchanges of officers would be useful in this regard, but State officers have been reluctant to go on detail to USAID for fear that such service would not be career-enhancing. One way to accelerate such details would be to take a page from the Goldwater-Nichols Act on DOD’s joint assignment requirements and require interagency experience, including at the National Security Council, for promotions to FS-1 and GS-15 and above for career officers in State, USAID and DOD.

When smart, knowledgeable people put their heads together, good policy is made, but this takes a lot of time and effort to achieve. More training designed to foster this type of coordination is needed. How will the budgeting and allocation of funds be handled with this type of coordination? There are many ways and models, but this should be left up to the Secretary of State to ultimately decide, in consultation with Congress. Above all, however, senior foreign policy officials need to make sure that the views of assistance professionals are taken into consideration.

U.S. Army logistician Terri Mcfadden (center) consults with USAID logistician Kelly Bradley (right) at a World Food Programme warehouse in Harper, Liberia, on best ways to transport supplies to U.S.-supported Ebola clinics.
Carol Han, USAID / OFDA

5. Get USAID a regular seat at the National Security Council. As a non-Cabinet agency, USAID often struggles to get its development perspective heard at the most senior policymaking bodies. While a full-fledged seat for USAID at the NSC might not be in the cards, we at least need to eliminate the confusing current arrangement under which the USAID Administrator never knows until the last minute whether they will be invited to NSC meetings. In its first National Security Policy Directive, establishing the shape of the NSC, the next administration should make it clear that USAID will be a regular attendee at NSC meetings whenever development, disaster or crisis management topics are discussed.

6. Strengthen the partnership with Congress. Congress has a key role in making sure that our foreign assistance is effective through its budgeting and authorization process. Over the years Congress has added additional hoops that the administration must jump through to implement programs, forcing USAID to add steps to an already lengthy process. Streamlining is needed. Other politically sensitive barriers to effective foreign assistance need to be addressed, such as standing up to the farm lobby and the American shipping companies to move all food aid to cash and do away with dumping commodities in countries (which has the risk of ruining local markets and agricultural production).

Congress should be encouraged to reduce the practice of earmarking funds for certain programs and countries. While, for example, setting a high earmark for education may seem like a great idea, the reality is that education is a popular target for many other donor countries’ assistance monies. U.S. funding might be more needed in a particular country to deal with inhumane prisons, or some other pressing need that typically does not attract donor funding.

USAID needs to strengthen its Office of Legislative and Public Affairs and not be so reticent about engaging with the Hill. In dealing with Congress it is important not to overpromise, to quickly admit mistakes and to be ready to brief on any issue of concern at the drop of a hat. In my experience, staff and members are reasonable, and once they know that there is method to the perceived madness of the administration, they are usually willing to go along.

7. Educate the American public. Polls show that the American public thinks that as much as a quarter of our national budget goes to foreign aid (the true figure is about 1 percent), and that much of this is wasted. The many and continuing success stories need to be presented—from Plan Colombia and the rebuilding of Europe after World War II, to the fact that Vladimir Putin fears U.S. and other assistance to promote Russian democracy more than he fears NATO. They need to know that world health is improving, and poverty is declining. Our best global friends and partners are countries that have received U.S. assistance since 1945. It is ironic that the USAID brand is better and more favorably known overseas than in the United States. Outmoded, Cold War–legacy provisions in the Foreign Assistance Act that prohibit USAID from telling its story to the American public need to be removed.

It is ironic that the USAID brand is better and more favorably known overseas than in the United States.

8. Get ready for the changing world. Creating a robust assistance agency will help the United States and our partners better address the two most pressing problems we face in international affairs: using our assistance to promote the rule of law, and giving people who live in countries captured by kleptocratic dictators the means to choose leaders who will provide citizens with basic services and create conditions that promote economic growth and opportunity.

This will require developing more programs that can be deployed effectively in nonpermissive environments. Large assistance flows from private foundations and investors present increasing opportunities for partnerships between government aid and these sources of funding.

Americans are a generous people. We should be proud of our assistance that has saved lives, made possible many accomplishments and created a more stable and prosperous world. When I talk with nongovernmental assistance providers and ask them which national aid agencies are the best, they uniformly cite USAID as having some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated staff, both Americans and foreign nationals, who regularly provide innovative and effective assistance under difficult and often dangerous conditions. We owe it to these hard-working professionals to create the conditions for their continued success.

Thomas C. Adams is a retired Senior State Department official who spent more than 40 years in government service, including 11 years in the Foreign Service with assignments to Zanzibar, Brussels and Budapest before converting to Civil Service. During most of his government service, he was engaged in managing foreign assistance. As a member of the Senior Executive Service, he served as coordinator of assistance to Europe and Eurasia, and as Haiti special coordinator.