Biden's USAID pick, Yemen's disruption, and Guterres' second term: This week in development

A camp for more than 10,000 people displaced by the war between government forces and the Houthis in Yemen. Photo by: Annasofie Flamand / IRIN Photos / 201003230854400244 / CC BY-NC-ND

Biden taps Samantha Power for the U.S. Agency for International Development, aid groups warn against life-threatening disruptions in Yemen, and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres looks to the future. This week in development:

United States President-elect Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he will nominate Samantha Power as administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who gained prominence as an advocate for humanitarian intervention, would be among the highest-profile figures ever to lead the U.S. foreign aid agency. Inside USAID, Power’s name was met largely with hopes that a leader of her stature and prominence might help restore the agency’s credibility after several months of political controversy and management problems that have caused morale to plummet. In announcing Power, Biden also revealed that he will elevate the USAID administrator position to the National Security Council, a move many hope will mean that development priorities garner greater consideration in U.S. foreign policy decisions. Some development experts expressed concern that Power’s well-known advocacy for U.S. military intervention to stop genocide could reopen questions about the relationship between humanitarian and military goals. Others noted that as a high-profile Democratic figure, Power could face difficulty in maintaining the bipartisan consensus that has historically insulated most U.S. foreign assistance programs from political battles.

Humanitarian groups are warning that the U.S. State Department’s designation this week of Ansarallah, better known as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization will cause severe disruption to lifesaving relief operations in Yemen. The decision triggers U.S. regulations and sanctions that prohibit NGOs from interacting knowingly with the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and whose approval is often required for humanitarian groups to operate there. “We are required and have to work through the Houthi authorities to carry out our programs. And if we are not allowed to do that, we are not allowed to program,” said Jared Wright, policy adviser at Mercy Corps. An estimated 80% of Yemen’s population is in need of aid. Humanitarian groups are largely in the dark about what possible licenses and exemptions might be carved out for their operations, though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested the U.S. will try to maintain “essential lifelines and engagements that support a political track and return to dialogue.” Any organization that accepts U.S. government funding is likely to be affected by the designation, even if that funding is not for operations in Yemen, said Joel Charny, executive director at Norwegian Refugee Council USA.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is seeking a second five-year term. After weeks of speculation, U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric confirmed to reporters Monday that Guterres is “a candidate” for reelection in the fall. The U.N. chief took office in 2017 after the first open, competitive election race in the international body’s 75-year history. While many have pushed for another transparent and public election this time around — instead of the closed-door negotiations of years past — most experts assume Guterres will find an easy path to reelection, and no alternative candidates have yet been put forward. “He gets a lot of credit from diplomats here for navigating the [U.S. President Donald] Trump era pretty well, overall, and the general idea is that if he wants a second term, which he clearly does, then he should have a chance to stay on,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. Guterres laid out his priorities in what many viewed as an unofficial reelection speech in July, when he described “two seismic shifts” that will shape this century: the climate crisis and digital transformation. Some experts believe the U.N. chief was waiting for the U.S. presidential election in November before making his plans official, given the challenges of managing the United Nations’ relationship with Trump’s White House.

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.