The Foreign Service Journal, November 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2021 85 USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 Reflections on an Anniversary: USAID at 60 Scottish theologian William Barclay said, “There are two great days in a person’s life—the day we are born and the day we discover why.” That November day in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act into law and created the United States Agency for International Development by executive order was indeed a great day. USAID and its mission, codified in the act, embody American goodness—Ameri- can drive, leadership, acumen and strategic foresight. Sixty years on, USAID has strong and broad bipartisan support in Congress. We are present in more than 80 countries, with programs in more than 100. The people of the world—including the American people—are better for it. USAID has proven its resilience, value and—yes, some may scoff—nimbleness across administrations, bud- gets, Administrators, natural and other disasters, fragmen- tation of foreign assistance, earmarks, mixed public senti- ment, interagency tussles, ever-changing priorities and global dynamics. USAID’s Foreign Service officers have been at the forefront of the agency’s global engagement and perseverance. So, yes, on our 60th anniversary, it is fitting to reflect on USAID’s creation and its accomplishments, and to raise a glass in celebration. But what about the “why” of USAID? That answer is both complex and simple. Administrations and Administrators have their own priorities, passions and peeves regarding develop- ment, leading to new policies, plans and people for the agency. To complicate matters, congressional commit- tees, representatives and staffers advocate for and represent their—and their constituents’—interests and concerns. Regional, national and local political economies, security contexts and stake- holders frequently change. Last but not least are our actual beneficiaries and their needs (remember them?). USAID is a development institution, but also part of the U.S. national security apparatus. All of these circumstances, entities, individuals and institutions have some influ- ence on the “why” of USAID. Depending on whom you ask the “why” question, you may receive a variety of answers. Here are mine: Does USAID exist to help others across the world? Yes. Does USAID exist to help the American people? Yes. Are these incompatible? Not in the least. In fact, this confluence is what makes being a Foreign Service offi- cer at USAID such a privilege and joy. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 captures the concept clearly: The Congress declares that the individual liberties, economic prosperity, and security of the people of the United States are best sustained and enhanced in a community of nations which respect individual civil and economic rights and freedoms and which work together to use wisely the world’s limited resources in an open and equitable inter- national economic system. Furthermore, the Congress reaffirms the traditional humanitarian ideals of the American people and renews its commitment to assist peo- ple in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness, and ignorance. Therefore, the Congress declares that a principal objective of the foreign policy of the United States is the encouragement and sustained support of the people of devel- oping countries in their efforts to acquire the knowledge and resources essential to development and to build the economic, political, and social institutions which will improve the quality of their lives. Though the world has changed in many ways since then, this rationale holds true, and continues to motivate so many of us. The tougher questions for USAID over the years have not been “why,” but rather “what” and “how.” (Actually, even “where” is a tricky question, but I’m going to punt on that one.) The “what,” to be blunt, is “everything.”There have been many Sisyphean efforts to try to rationalize USAID’s scope and mission. Indeed, the first (and I believe only) Presidential Policy Directive on Development, signed in 2010, called for the United States to “be more selective about where and in which sectors it works,” noting that “the United States cannot do all things, do them well, and do them everywhere.” As far as I know, that PPD is still in effect. But the reality is that even as USAID under- takes lofty “game changing innovations” to advance countries’“journeys to self- reliance” and to “end extreme poverty,” we are on the ground trying to improve basic sani- tary conditions in schools so kids can have the educations they need and deserve.