The Foreign Service Journal, December 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2021 67 USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 USAID at the NSC Table Each administration approaches national security differently—not only with reference to actual policy, but also in terms of policy formulation. For example, previous administrations have tended to invite the USAID Admin- istrator to National Security Council principals committee (PC) meetings on a discre- tionary “as appropriate” basis. The Trump administra- tion made the Administrator a regular at NSC deputies committee (DC) gatherings, one step below principals. When President Joe Biden nominated Ambassador Samantha Power as Admin- istrator, he elevated the posi- tion to the status of “perma- nent” PC participant. For those of you particu- larly interested in the NSC, including some of its history, I recommend the June 2021 Congressional Research Service Report , “The National Security Council: Background and Issues for Congress.” So, what does a seat at the NSC table mean for USAID as an institution, and for FSOs? The elevation of USAID from the DC to the PC is what technical experts refer to as “a big deal.” A more thought- ful reflection can be found in a piece published in June by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, captur- ing the views of five former Administrators on the impor- tance of adding the USAID Administrator to the NSC. As the piece highlights, “being at the table enables a development voice to shape and influence policies in a meaningful way. It also means that USAID is no lon- ger simply seen as a techno- cratic implementing agency, but rather as representing a distinct policy perspective.” In fact, over the past sev- eral years, USAID has steadily built its capacity to engage with the interagency com- munity, including the NSC. PC meetings are generally the culmination of a series of interagency processes and dialogues, and USAID has greatly upped its game in terms of representing agency priorities and perspectives in the interagency policy committee (IPC) and other sub-PC fora. True, our field-led model can be challenging when D.C.-based colleagues must engage onWashington time; they want to represent the field but don’t have the luxury of telling the interagency,“I’d like to consult with the mis- sion and get back to you later.” But even here, we have improved our coordination and communications, and are better able to bring our strong comparative advan- tage of field-focus and per- spective to the NSC. Kudos to all USAID colleagues who have raised the agency’s role and contribution to U.S. national security policy. For all the progress we have made institutionally, we must continue to build our human, IT and operational capacities to meet USAID’s elevated NSC role on a long- term, sustainable basis. We must invest in strengthening USAID’s capacities—includ- ing the number, skills and roles of FSOs—to secure a true permanent position in the years to come. Absent this investment, I fear the pundits will write that it was Administrator Samantha Power as an indi- vidual who was named to the NSC principals committee, not USAID the institution. We might even see USAID—and the issue of development— revert to “as appropriate” status in future administra- tion NSC structures. For FSOs, USAID’s elevated role in the NSC should present an excellent opportunity to contribute to U.S. development policy and priorities, as well as to build professional skills, networks and experience. In fact, given USAID’s unique field-driven perspective, FSOs bring valu- able insights and skill sets to these positions. In return, details to the NSC offer FSOs the ability to build their skills and hone new ones, and contribute across the array of USAID’s Precepts for Foreign Service Promotion Boards, not to mention advance develop- ment at the highest level of government. Of course, NSC positions are challenging, and one should probably not expect to maintain an optimal work- life balance. And in terms of an FSO’s career path and assignment planning, these are not traditional “assign- ments” that one bids on; they are details. The agency does not control when opportunities arise or whom the NSC ultimately accepts. Such operational com- plexities can be worked through, and the Office of Human Capital and Talent Management and others do appreciate the unique nature of the positions. But there’s no denying they are still complex, particularly for FSOs posted in the field. While they can be stressful and time consuming, they are also professionally and personally rewarding! Soft power, including development, will continue to be at the forefront of U.S. for- eign policy. In this context, I encourage FSOs to seek NSC detail opportunities. You will no doubt become a stronger, more capable officer; but more critically, you will help advance the agency’s mis- sion and U.S. foreign policy through collaboration with colleagues from across the foreign policy community. I am hopeful that over the next few years, USAID— through investments in FSOs and other career staff along with policy and structural reforms—will secure a truly permanent seat at the NSC principals committee table. After all, as the old saying goes: If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. n