Can Gayle Smith secure USAID's future?

By Michael Igoe 01 May 2015

Gayle Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director of the National Security Council, has been nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Enough Project / CC BY-NC-ND

President Barack Obama has nominated Gayle Smith to be the next administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

If confirmed, Smith will assume leadership of the world’s largest bilateral aid organization, and will likely look to secure many of the reform measures and priority initiatives introduced under her predecessor Rajiv Shah, while, perhaps, elevating the role of the U.S. aid chief in U.S. foreign policy.

Smith, who serves as special assistant to the president and senior director of the National Security Council, is no stranger to the Washington, D.C., development community, nor to the long list of initiatives and the tangled web of interagency tensions that often characterize U.S. development policy and its implementation.

With only 16 months remaining in the Obama administration, Smith would have a limited amount of time to make a lasting impression. Former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah served in his post for five years, and while his legacy remains subject to debate, many credit him with elevating USAID’s public image, and with building key bipartisan relationships in Congress to maintain the agency’s budget and secure some of its independence of mission.

Smith approaches her confirmation process with a wealth of development — and developing world — experience. On Obama’s National Security Council, she has played a key role in formulating the president’s Africa policy. When Obama brought nearly every African head of state to Washington last summer, Smith was a key architect of their agenda. Some human rights activists questioned the administration’s decision to invite even those leaders with poor civil rights records to the summit, and have since wondered whether Smith, as USAID administrator, would push back against civil rights abuses.

Smith has also coordinated administration responses to major humanitarian emergencies, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and has championed U.S. global health and food security programs. Smith worked as a freelance journalist in Africa for two decades, and co-founded the Enough Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping end genocide and crimes against humanity.

Smith is firmly in Obama’s camp as well, described by many as an “insider,” and as a “dyed in the wool” Democrat, said Ritu Sharma, co-founder and former president of Women Thrive Worldwide. That might mean she’ll have to work a bit harder to convince Republican senators she’s the right woman for the job.

The confirmation process could be a challenging one to negotiate, especially considering the time pressure Smith already faces if she’s going to make a meaningful contribution at USAID.

“I think she’s going to have to do a lot of outreach to Republicans,” Sharma said.

Obama’s development ‘insider’

Smith’s role on the National Security Council has been that of “a classic insider,” Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, told Devex. Yet the USAID administrator’s job is in many ways an outward-facing one.

If Smith — and her supporters in the White House — struggle to convince Congress she is more than Obama’s hand-picked confidante and that she will be willing to build key bipartisan relationships in the way Shah did, then the confirmation process could drag on and chip away at the time Smith has left to make her mark at USAID.

“I don’t know what skills Gayle has in that area, of building … critical cross-aisle relationships,” Chvotkin said.

Sharma pointed out that the USAID administrator position is one that Smith has “wanted for a long time,” and given her close relationship with Obama it seems unlikely Smith would have accepted Thursday’s nomination if she didn’t think the president was prepared to spend the political capital required to get her confirmed.

The review and confirmation process will disrupt Smith’s role as a development adviser on the National Security Council. She’ll have to recuse herself from “all kinds of conversations about development,” Sharma noted, and that would seem like an unlikely decision unless Smith is fairly confident in the support for her confirmation.

Those potential political hurdles stand in the way of a nominee most leaders in the development community hope will hit the ground running and prioritize the long-term security of reforms and initiatives already underway, instead of introducing anything wildly new. And many feel she is perfectly suited to do that.

“In the five years I was chairman and ranking member of the [House] Foreign Relations Committee … I can’t think of a single person who was more committed to … rebuilding USAID capacity,” Howard Berman, Democrat and California’s former representative, told Devex.

Berman added that Smith has already been intimately involved in the reforms and initiatives introduced under Shah. Ensuring those legacy items persist regardless of who sits in the White House two years from now will be another big step for a U.S. aid agency still fighting to “build its own identity.”

In particular, Berman anticipates Smith will “institutionalize the concept of country ownership in a way that the Congress, the contractors, the other key players will think makes sense for them as well as for the development mission.” The ongoing battle over food aid reform and efforts to make USAID a more transparent and accountable agency are areas where Smith might be able to step in and make a difference in relatively short amount of time, he added.

Elevating the USAID chief’s role?

Smith’s insider status, far from being a liability, is one reason she is the right choice for the job, Berman said.

“I want somebody who knows all the players, who knows all the levers of power, who’s familiar with them,” he told Devex, adding, “She’s gotta move quickly … It isn’t like she’s got four years.”

Smith might also be able to leave a mark on the USAID administrator role itself. If confirmed, Smith’s close relationship with the president could pave the way for an elevated role for the U.S. aid chief in foreign policy. Chvotkin described Smith’s close relationship with Obama as “a very, very valuable commodity” and one of her “distinguishing characteristics.” When Berman was in the Senate, fighting an ill-fated battle to rewrite the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, one of his goals was to put the USAID administrator on the president’s cabinet. USAID does now enjoy a seat at the National Security Council, but Smith could do a lot to make that seat a permanent one, Sharma pointed out.

As far as making the USAID administrator a cabinet position, “if there was somebody that could do it, she could,” Sharma said, while noting it would take some weighty congressional authorization. Still, USAID could aspire to a seat at cabinet meetings, in the same way the Environmental Protection Agency attends them at the president’s invitation, she suggested.

Berman, however, warned against spending too much time and capital getting into the “internal, controversial things that don’t immediately impact on foreign aid,” and emphasized that the next administrator should focus on “empowering our missions in these countries with greater decision-making.”

‘You don’t mess around’ with Gayle

Many seem to agree with that assessment, and hope the president’s nominee will depart from her predecessor's oft-criticized record of launching new initiatives faster than his agency could keep up with them, and instead “burrow into the reforms” already underway and look to build some flexibility into decision-making at the USAID mission level within them.

“A big problem with our aid is that there’s so little flexibility,” Sharma told Devex. “When the train’s going in the wrong direction, [we] can’t change tracks.”

Sharma is optimistic that Smith would have the mandate — and the political leverage — to make some bureaucratic changes that would grant staff at the country missions power to course correct based on their assessments of what people actually need. Those kinds of changes can be “painful” to mobilize, Sharma noted, but Smith might have the clout to see them through.

“You don’t mess around with her. … When she says she’s going to do something, it gets done,” Sharma said.

Shah’s nomination in November 2009 took nearly a year to announce, and he was confirmed six weeks later, days before a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, prompting a full mobilization of U.S. relief efforts. Smith appears poised to inherit her own portfolio of ongoing crises — in Nepal, Syria, West Africa, South Sudan and elsewhere. But while Shah’s first week on the job was a crash course in U.S. international disaster management, Smith is as well-versed in the interagency process as anyone.

“Few people know development as Gayle Smith does, and fewer still understand the intricacies of the spaghetti bowl that makes up our whole aid/development system,” Jim Kolbe, the Republican former representative from Arizona and honorary co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, told Devex in an email.

“Gayle comes closer than nearly anyone else to being able to unravel the tangle,” he added.

As crises continue to evolve and erupt at an increasing rate around the globe, that might be one of her strongest — and most mission-critical — assets.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of U.S. aid, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

Igoe michael 1
Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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