by Joan Wadelton, Guest Contributor
Secretary of State Tillerson is reportedly contemplating merging the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State. This idea dates back to President Carter. However, such a merger would neither be the most efficient nor the most effective way to address shortcomings in our foreign assistance programs.
In fact, the US government's foreign assistance efforts are scattershot and often duplicative. This does not mean, however, that USAID should be merged into the State Department with its far different mission and culture. Quite the opposite. The State Department is foremost charged with representing US foreign policies abroad at official levels. USAID, in contrast, is tasked with administering US government funded foreign assistance programs in developing countries. They require two very different skills sets and modes of operation.
Yet similar missions and areas of operation exist between the US government's two main assistance agencies -- USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Rather than consolidating USAID and State, it would make more sense to consolidate USAID and the MCC. This would reduce the current overlap of programs and staff, cut costs and promote a better use of scarce resources.
Here are the primary issues which the Administration should examine in making its decision as well as recommendations for a way forward.
Issues to Be Considered
1) What should US foreign assistance accomplish – not just in this Administration, but for the next several generations? Keeping in mind that the goal of all assistance programs should be to work their way out of existence – that is, countries must eventually be successful enough to move beyond foreign aid.
There are two parallel streams in US foreign assistance. First, humanitarian, such as famine relief, containment and eradication of disease and alleviation of the suffering of refugees and other displaced persons. Second, development implemented through training programs in areas such as agriculture, business and democratic institution building.
What are the best means to accomplish these twin goals in a rapidly changing world? For example, what assistance tools should we employ to assert ourselves in the face of China's rapidly increasing dominance in Africa or instability in the Middle East? How do we sharpen our focus and programs to meet today's challenges?
2) To whom should we provide assistance?
Our current assistance model is state-to-state. But in a world of non-state actors, civil wars and other political fragmentation, should we have a more flexible model that allows us to assist factions or populations – even if the country's central government does not agree?
And what of countries that are underdeveloped but inherently wealthy (for example, possessing untapped mineral resources)? Or in need of assistance but so corrupt that whatever we provide is unlikely to reach the target population?
Finally, how do we navigate shifting political landscapes in countries to which we are providing assistance? It takes years to set up an effective assistance program, so canceling and reinstating programs as host governments change can be counterproductive.
3) Are USAID's current operating methods appropriate, effective and up-to-date?
Is the current model – a small permanent staff supervising many private contractors – cost effective? Should the provision of US assistance revert to its pre-Vietnam method of operation where permanent staff provided expertise in the field? Or does the complexity and volume of issues in today's world mandate the use of many experienced and expert contractors?
And do new technologies offer opportunities for cost savings by providing training through the Internet, rather than fielding large staffs on the ground?
4) Many US government agencies have training and assistance programs abroad – from the FAA to DoD to Commerce to the Patent and Trademark Office – the list is long. Millions of program dollars go into the same countries and regions -- sometimes into the same sectors – often in an uncoordinated fashion.
An initial and critical component of overhauling US foreign assistance must be an overview of the existing universe of programs. For a truly effective foreign assistance policy, each agency must fit rationally within this framework.
Most important for this discussion are the responsibilities of USAID and the MCC. USAID is far larger than the MCC and the two agencies have somewhat different approaches to the provision of assistance. However, their overall missions, functions and geographic presence are quite similar.
5) Two agencies were folded into State in the last two decades – the tiny Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the much larger US Information Agency (USIA). Those experiences are useful models for the consolidation of any agencies. With hindsight, it can be determined how well each merger went, and what lessons should be learned from them.
ACDA was a very small agency whose functions were already represented at State. The merger was accomplished by blending ACDA staff into State's existing Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and then dividing that into four component bureaus.
The mission of USIA, by contrast, was not represented at State. It was considerably larger than ACDA, and had a corporate culture distinct from State's. The bulk of USIA was simply put into newly created, separate divisions of State, with a small number of staff assigned to State's regional offices. The process was painful and skepticism remains as to its ultimate success.
While State is considerably larger than USAID, the incorporation of USAID would still involve placing a sizable number of people with a very different corporate culture, mission and operating methods than the State Department.
6) Determine how you will partner with Congress to get this done.
A significant amount of the foreign aid budget comes in the form of earmarks and/or preferences in legislative report language. Congressional committees and individual members often have strong interests in particular programs and will ensure that they are funded.
In addition, some Congressional staffers (and members) have themselves worked in the assistance arena as political appointees, the Peace Corps or with private charitable organizations. They will have strong views about how any restructuring should proceed.
1) Survey US government foreign assistance programs across all agencies, in all countries and all sectors. Compare and analyze them and produce a listing of programs which should continue, be eliminated or combined with others. Identify redundancies and determine how to eliminate them. Sort through each recipient country and region to see what has worked, what has not and find out why. Take note of lessons learned and apply them to future programs.
2) Merge USAID and the MCC into a single, independent assistance agency – not into the State Department. Their functions, areas of operation, budgets and personnel could be combined where overlap exists, allowing for eventual cost savings. Best practices from both would be adopted agency-wide. Look at folding other agencies in as well – the Trade and Development Agency with its focus on finding opportunities for US companies in development projects abroad might also be a candidate.
3) Give this consolidated entity a coordinating role over US government assistance across all agencies. Charge it with formulating cutting-edge programs, implementing best practices and guarding against waste and duplication.
Assistance is a low cost and effective component of our foreign policy. Its contours will be increasingly important in an emerging foreign policy dynamic in which the United States is being challenged for world leadership.
Rationalizing the many assistance programs across our government would promote greater coherence and coordination. This would allow for budget and staff cuts and – eventually – greater effectiveness.