By Patricia H. Kushlis
Whatever happened to the U.S. Agency for International Development? Wasn’t it supposed to play a key role in the Obama administration’s accent on diplomacy as a major tool of US foreign policy? Didn’t Hillary Clinton emphasize development as a crucial part of diplomacy – in fact, as important as traditional diplomacy and defense – in dealing with the world? Didn’t Robert Gates support this enthusiastically? Or am I missing something.
After learning last week from an NPR broadcast entitled Diplomacy Under Fire that new State Department Foreign Service Officers should be agronomists, counter-terrorism experts, civilian development, anti-narcotics and democratization specialists rather than masters at traditional State Department skills like political and economic reporting and analysis, negotiation or even running embassies or consulates and dealing with host governments, I wonder what the development officers at USAID are supposed to do. Or, for that matter, if anyone’s home there?
Who is supposed to do traditional diplomatic work?
And if the State Department Foreign Service Officers don’t do the traditional work of running Embassies and Consulates and interacting with host governments and peoples – who is supposed to do it?
I guess this might be one way to eliminate the need for those unsightly fortresses that have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain beginning in 1984.
Just fire – or pension off - the political, economic, administrative, consular and public diplomacy officers who currently staff them or alternatively turn these people into USAID officers who set up shop in remote corners of a country. Then send in demolition squads in a kind of “cash for clunkers embassy” program. This would not only provide work for those proficient in the use of dynamite and nothing better to do with their dubious skills. It might also change America’s face abroad. Who knows, this might just be for the better.
What happens to Consular Services and Public Diplomacy?
That doesn’t address, however, the ongoing need to issue (or not) visas, passports and look after Americans abroad in trouble. This, by the way, is a full time occupation of State Department Consular Officers.
Or, heaven help us, what about those few FSOs who still engage in public diplomacy, e.g. interact with foreign media on a regular basis (and those few American correspondents still abroad), administer educational and other exchange programs, English teaching programs, run the few libraries and cultural centers that still exist and support and enhance visits by American cultural figures? This all used to be done by the US Information Agency before those tasks and staff were slurped up by State and shrink-wrapped and diluted big time.
But back to the USAID crisis and it is a big one.
The problem begins with the lack of leadership. No, I should write LACK OF LEADERSHIP – all caps.
Not only has USAID dramatically deteriorated, been miniaturized and hemorrhaged expertise over the past twenty years and in particular the last ten, but the agency is now being tasked to take on projects and billions of dollars to fund those projects many of which under the Bush II administration went to the US military – or were scattered helter skelter throughout a maize of other US government agencies from the Justice Department to DEA.
That’s fine. Seems to me that development and its coordination should be more centralized and civilianized: but USAID still has no chief administrator (e.g. top political leader), none of its regional bureaus have leaders, far too many of the people doing the work in the field and in the mid-levels in Washington lack the know-how because they do not have the requisite managerial or technical expertise. This is gained by years of on the-job-experience handling millions of dollars of program design, implementation and contract oversight they are suddenly being tasked to take on.
Continuity in the war zones a major problem
The situation in the war zones of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq is so tough, continuity remains a major problem: Tours in these countries are normally for one year only. But political imperatives and requisite funding are so concentrated on the Middle East that USAID’s attention to the rest of the world suffers severely.
Let’s look at the Latin American Bureau for example. There’s no one home in the top job. It is being run by an Acting Assistant Administrator with no political clout and – like the directorship of USAID itself – there’s no nominee in sight.
In Colombia – remember that high priority country in Latin America and all its problems from major political instability to narco-terrorism - several years back? Many of those problems have not gone away. No surprises: spraying coca fields has not done the trick and eliminated the cash crop.
Plan Colombia and the rest of Latin America?
Yet, the situation in Colombia occupied nearly one-quarter of NPR’s recent broadcast Diplomacy Under Fire. Unfortunately, NPR’s Deborah Amos did not interview the right people. Times have changed since Anne Patterson was Ambassador there in 2003 and her story lacked immediacy (as a commenter on NPR rightly wrote), but what is happening is that right now the USAID Mission is being inundated with $800 million for new programs, the old mega-programs will soon finish, and there will be nothing in their place for six to nine months – at best.
Because of their magnitude, new funding and major program redirection are resulting in a major scramble among contractors (including those who have no experience in Colombia) for those funds as well as major corporate raiding games for experienced personnel to administer them.
This is not to say that new programs that emphasize greater regional foci and better coordination with the Colombian government are not needed – GAO has been pointing this out for some time – e.g. “go where the coca’s grown” which wasn’t happening. But this is what is going to happen. So the new emphasis is all to the good. Should have happened years ago.
It’s just that from a continuity point of view, it would be better if the programs were phased in gradually beginning now. But that’s not happening.
Worse, the USAID Mission in Colombia is also without leadership and expertise just as all this new money is about to come down the pike. Extended absences of top level management combined with inexperienced staff are resulting in a dysfunctional state at a time when a firm and experienced hand at the helm is most needed. Hopefully this will be partially remedied with the arrival of a new Mission Director slated for later in September. But, Colombia is just one example, unfortunately.
Coping with the "End of History" vacuum and the militarization of US foreign policy post 9/11
To begin to cope with the vacuum created by the “End of History” decade of the 1990s when the foreign affairs bureaucracies were set on a disastrous downward spiral followed by militarization of US foreign policy after 9/11, USAID has just embarked on a massive hiring spree at all levels.
Not only is it advertising for a raft of new officers – and I would assume that qualified USAID contracting staff would fare well in finally gaining the government jobs many would like – but the agency is also recruiting retired senior officers to return to the fold to run some of its overseas missions, to mentor more junior staff as well as to fill major positions in Washington Headquarters. These all are sensible approaches.
But USAID also needs to take care of the top level leadership vacuum. The clock is ticking.
See also: Matt Armstrong, MountainRunner, USAID challenges reflect greater problems at the State Department.