Aid advocates look for early signals of Biden's plans for USAID

USAID staff prepare ventilator shipments. Photo by: Staff Sgt. Keith James / U.S. Air Force / CC BY-NC

BURLINGTON, Vt. —  With six weeks remaining until inauguration day for President-elect Joe Biden, the U.S. development community is watching closely for signals about how the incoming team might approach leadership, policy priorities, and budgeting for U.S. foreign aid agencies.

While some insiders hope Biden’s arrival might help repair broken relationships and rebuild strained bureaucracies, they also caution that aid advocates should not expect a budget windfall, or a quick fix to long-standing problems.

As with every presidential transition, many eyes are on whom the Biden team might nominate as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A variety of names have already circulated in panel discussions and in the press, with some outlets reporting that well-known humanitarian leaders such as Ertharin Cousin, former executive director of the World Food Programme, might have an edge — particularly in light of the cascading effects of the COVID-19 crisis in low- and middle-income countries.

Others suggest taking a cue from the nominations Biden has already announced, particularly that of Antony Blinken to be his secretary of state.

“Once that secretary position has been decided, then it kind of indicates the type of choice you might make for USAID administrator,” said Kate Eltrich, president of the lobbying firm KAE Strategic.

Past administrations have seen their pick to lead USAID dictated — and delayed — by questions and concerns about who would have a good working relationship with the country’s top diplomat. When former President Barack Obama took office in 2009 with Hilary Clinton as his secretary of state, it took nearly 10 months to agree on Rajiv Shah’s nomination to serve as her counterpart at USAID.

“With Tony Blinken as secretary of state, you see somebody who clearly has a very close relationship with the president and who is going to be continuing to be his top foreign policy adviser,” Eltrich said, speaking at the Professional Services Council’s Development Conference on Tuesday.

For Eltrich, that suggests Biden could look to nominate a USAID administrator who is less connected to the White House, and better positioned to travel the world and repair global development relationships.

“You need somebody who is not in it for their own personality. And so I think you're going to avoid most of the kind of public figures out there and tend more to people who are on the practitioner side,” she said.

“We have to fix what is broken in terms of the relationship of the Hill and the agencies.”

— Joan Condon, staffer, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

During the Obama administration, Blinken served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state. While he has pledged that the Biden administration will elevate the role of development in its foreign policy, his own experience leans toward diplomacy and national security.

“Blinken doesn’t come from this world,” Conor Savoy, executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, told Devex.

“He’s probably going to be looking to people that he worked with in the previous administration,” Savoy said, adding that “raises the profile of people who were under him at State.”

Others point to the importance of a good relationship between the country’s development chief and the U.S. Congress when they consider potential candidates.

“I think the best thing that ... President-elect Biden could do, is to choose someone who knows development a little bit and is committed to it, but is very well connected politically in the White House and on the Hill to protect the agency and maybe to get back some lost ground,” Andrew Natsios, who led USAID during the George W. Bush administration, told Devex.

Some advocates hope the Biden team might look to Congress for its USAID pick.

Q&A: Can lawmakers get to the bottom of White House aid funding delays?

U.S. lawmakers pledged to examine the funding delays and restrictions under the Trump administration. Devex speaks to Rep. Ami Bera, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight.

“I think a terrific choice would be Congressman Ami Bera,” Lester Munson, principal at BGR Group, said on Tuesday, referring to the Democratic representative and physician from California, whom he described as “curious,” “very smart,” and capable of “surviving in the very strange Washington political environment.”

“I appreciate the remarks and I think he would be great,” replied Nikole Burroughs, Bera’s staff director, who spoke on the same panel.

How quickly Biden’s USAID nominee gets confirmed will depend significantly on who that nominee is, said Joan Condon, a staffer on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

“What will expedite that process is setting up highly qualified nominees who make themselves available to meet with each of the members, meet with the staff, answer all the questions, be fully transparent and really resolve any outstanding issues as quickly as possible,” she said at Tuesday’s event.

Many of Biden’s nominations for key positions so far have arrived as part of a larger team. He formally unveiled his secretary of state, national security adviser, and United Nations ambassador together at a public event that sought to highlight their united approach.

Savoy hopes the new administration will take a similar approach to appointing its development leaders, instead of nominating a USAID administrator first, and then filling other agency positions on a one-off basis without a lot of “insight or thought.”

U.S. development agencies have often struggled with coordination and fragmentation, he noted, adding that, “perhaps one way of getting at this is to simply look at it as a more cohesive group.”

While many credit former USAID administrator Mark Green with building good relationships on Capitol Hill — many of which he already had as a former congressman — they also note that the Trump administration’s approach to foreign aid left agencies in the dark and their leaders stranded when it came to defending their own budgets and programs.

“They weren't allowed to speak to Congress,” Burroughs said, adding that when the Trump administration proposed budget cuts or rescissions it often fell to USAID’s implementing partners to convince lawmakers to reject them.

While Biden has pledged to restore relationships across the political aisle, aid experts are quick to point out that the relationship between federal agencies and U.S. lawmakers has never been particularly smooth.

“Any administration, they have never been good communicators with the Hill, period, and everything is personality based,” Condon said.

“We have to fix what is broken in terms of the relationship of the Hill and the agencies. And there is no trust. There's never been trust. We've got to figure out how to deal with that situation,” she added.

Even as the Trump administration comes to an end, career officials inside federal agencies are still preparing the materials that will feed into the next president’s budget request. At some point, Biden’s team will inherit those proposals and shape them into a budget blueprint that reflects the new administration’s policy priorities, KAE Strategic’s Eltrich said.

While it appears likely the new administration will want to “signal” an increase in the foreign assistance budget since it is likely to be a “significant priority,” Eltrich said, the development community should not expect a sudden “free-for-all” when it comes to the international affairs account.

“First of all, it won't get through Congress. But secondly, he can't look unmoored from reality in terms of the deficit. So I think you're going to have some moderation,” she said.

Trump’s White House repeatedly signaled its desire to slash foreign aid spending, and when Congress rejected those budget proposals, turned to opaque budget reviews and little known legal provisions to try and reclaim funding that lawmakers appropriated, and limit the amount USAID could spend.

“It was extremely chaotic,” Condon said.

The next administration has an opportunity to increase the transparency of that budget and procurement system, Condon added, so that if another administration tries something similar in the future, “at least that transparent system will be in place so folks on the outside — implementers, the public, everybody — can see what's actually going on.”

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.