After months of waiting, USAID foreign service applicants see opportunities vanish

A view of the Ronald Reagan Building, which houses the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Antoine 49 / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — “Dear Valued Applicant,” the emails began.

Some applicants for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s foreign service had waited two years for them. They had undergone interviews, secured medical clearances, submitted security paperwork. But for months they heard nothing — a “communication blackout,” one applicant called it. They nervously scanned the news and online federal jobs forums to try to glean what President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts would mean for their aspirations to serve overseas as U.S. development professionals.

Many of them got their answer last Monday, when 97 foreign service applicants who were already in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pre-employment process received emails informing them that the positions they applied for no longer exist, according to a USAID official. This is the latest round of cancellation emails that have been sent to USAID job applicants as a hiring freeze continues at the agency, the official said.

“Thank you for your interest in a position with US Agency for International Development (USAID). We appreciate the time and effort you committed to pursuing a career with USAID throughout the Agency’s multi‐step application process,” read the email, which Devex obtained.

“After careful deliberation, the Human Capital and Talent Management (HCTM) has determined that given the current staffing needs of the Agency the position you have applied for has been cancelled.”

If these applicants want to serve in the USAID foreign service, they will have to start from the beginning of a lengthy process many of them had nearly completed — if and when the agency gets a green light to start hiring again. Some of them might do that, but this recent experience has likely given many pause. One applicant described it as an “exercise in futility.”

“I suppose I'll regroup and reapply in a few years, though this was a tough process even before the current administration, and [it] will be hard to disrupt my family again,” the applicant, who requested anonymity, wrote to Devex.

Another applicant planned to contact his senators, to see if lawmakers might press Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to explain why the positions have been cancelled, and what the future of foreign service hiring might look like at USAID and the State Department.

USAID offered a straightforward explanation for the cancelled positions. “The Department of State and USAID continue to operate under a hiring freeze, which extends to both civil-service and foreign-service positions at USAID,” agency spokesperson Clayton McCleskey wrote to Devex.

Tillerson imposed that freeze as part of his broader effort to restructure the U.S. foreign affairs bodies for greater efficiency. He has since allowed a few limited exceptions. After members of Congress objected to the suspension of two State Department fellowship programs aimed at promoting greater diversity in U.S. foreign policy, he offered those programs a reprieve.

“I am not expecting this to happen for us, but people waiting on the register for State [foreign service officer] positions were at least given an extension of 18 months on the register instead of just being let go after such a long interview/application process,” another applicant who requested anonymity wrote to Devex.

“I thought that was the least they could do instead of telling us to apply again and go through this whole process when they re-advertise these posts on USAJOBS,” the applicant said.

A USAID official told Devex that State Department and USAID foreign service applications work differently. While State’s applicants enter a registry that positions them for jobs as they become available, USAID’s foreign service hopefuls apply for a specific position.

Then they wait to find out whether the position they applied for still exists.

What's the future of U.S. aid and development policy under the Trump administration? Read Devex news and analysis and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.