In the final moments of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the Texan congressman pleads with his fellow lawmakers to provide the most basic necessities to the fragile Afghan government. While his colleagues supported military aid to the mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet Union, they balk at funding basic education and social development. We all know how that story ended.
We now face another make-or-break moment for U.S. foreign policy and U.S. foreign assistance.
The consequences of massive cuts to foreign aid often take a generation to manifest, but once they do, they are devastating. Following the Cold War, the U.S. Agency for International Development was gutted, pure and simple. Deprived of its resources, human capital and technical expertise, USAID was unable to respond to mounting global challenges. After 9/11, our political class woke up to the realization that our civilian capacity was wholly inadequate to support reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defunding USAID became a classic example of the U.S. government cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Today, the country’s top international development agency once again finds itself in the cross hairs of budget hawks. However, Congress is taking aim at a very different USAID. More than any other government agency, USAID has committed itself to a reform agenda — called USAID Forward — that will make our foreign assistance dollars more effective, efficient, and transparent. It is gradually rebuilding its planning, implementation and evaluation systems so that the agency will be more accountable, not only to the recipients of aid, but to Congress and the American people. However, since foreign assistance is a convenient political football, these reforms may amount to nothing, yet another victim of Washington’s partisan squabbles.
Of all the cuts to emerge from last month’s House Foreign Affairs Committee draft authorization bill and the fiscal 2012 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee bill markup, the cut from USAID’s operating expenses budget may turn out to be one of the most painful for U.S. foreign policy. There are few budget line items less sexy than USAID’s OE budget, and it lacks a vocal constituency among NGOs. It is an easy target. Yet sufficient OE funding for USAID is critical to the execution of U.S. foreign policy, since it funds the salaries and training of our development practitioners, as well as the administrative costs of USAID-managed programs. At the moment, this includes the long-term strengthening of critical programming and accountability systems. The OE budget keeps the lights on in our overseas missions and makes sure that we can replace development practitioners as they retire.
The OE budget is already severely constrained. Any significant reductions in the requested funding will threaten the fundamental capabilities of the agency to manage and account for U.S. foreign assistance.
After a period of neglect and decline, USAID began to claw its way back to health through Bush administration programs like the Development Leadership Initiative, which seeks to recruit new managers and younger technical experts, and the current USAID Forward initiative, which aims to save taxpayer money through improved efficiencies such as contracting and procurement reform. These programs would be decimated by the cuts currently being contemplated. The majority of USAID’s $985 million budget developed by the House of Representatives would be consumed by paying salaries and benefits, assuming that USAID funds their operations at fiscal 2010 levels. Nearly all those hired by the Development Leadership Initiative since 2009 would be laid off, and the next generation of development leaders would be asked to find work elsewhere. Overseas missions could lose as much as 18 percent of their staff. Forget about investing in innovation. Even buying a few new computers would put our overseas missions in the red. Some might not even be able to pay the rent. Is this a vision for global leadership?
USAID’s rebuilding is vital for the U.S. to address successfully the national security, economic, and foreign policy challenges the U.S. faces in the 21st century. However, these strengthening efforts only began in 2008, and the hardest work lies ahead.
The funding levels set by this recent round of reckless legislation will not only roll back the progress made in recent years at USAID. They could potentially break our nation’s foreign assistance system for good. As a USAID senior foreign service officer in the field, I witnessed how the cutbacks in USAID staffing in the 1990s nearly destroyed my agency. The result was a shortage of program managers, planners and technical experts who were critically needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention other poor countries whose growth over time would mean expanding U.S. exports and jobs.
In this era of fiscal austerity, we must avoid the wrong-headed actions of the past that crippled the capacity of our development staff and diplomats to both respond to and prevent crises. If we don’t support USAID’s fundamental institutional capabilities, how can we hope to respond to daunting, unanticipated challenges, such as famine in sub-Saharan Africa or bolstering new Middle Eastern democracies in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya?
Last year’s presidential policy directive on global development elevated development to the same level of strategic importance as diplomacy and defense. If the administration is serious about development, it must make the continuation of USAID’s reform and rebuilding processes a top priority in budget negotiations for 2012 and beyond and insist on adequate OE funding. NGOs, academics, government officials and concerned citizens must speak up now, or our nation’s days as a global leader in alleviating poverty and building stable economies may be numbered.
Should the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee’s OE levels become law, USAID’s reform effort will be dead in the water, effectively derailing the president’s development agenda.
After the near-fatal slashing of the ’90s, USAID has painstakingly been brought back from the brink through bipartisan efforts under both the Bush and Obama administrations. If a second such sundering of the agency occurs, USAID is unlikely to survive as a significant and influential foreign assistance agency. This is a make-or-break moment for U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance.