Gayle Smith's beginning of the end

By Michael Igoe 10 March 2016

Gayle Smith, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Remy Steinegger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Gayle Smith will use her tenure as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development to “lock in” initiatives introduced by President Barack Obama and to build a strengthened agency, capable of holding its own in Washington’s perennial turf battles, she told a packed audience on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Passing the Global Food Security Act is Smith’s top priority. Both houses of Congress have introduced versions of the bill and if signed into law, it would lend staying power to Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, considered a signature development legacy item for the administration.  Feed the Future tackles hunger in 19 targeted countries through agricultural programs.

Smith said she would also push for a more empowered USAID involving a “grand bargain” with congressional overseers “that delivers accountability and impact and earns flexibility in exchange.”

Smith also suggested she would work to further strengthen USAID’s policy bureau, an office set up in part to take back some of the agency’s policy autonomy after much of it was ceded to the State Department in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The USAID chief wants the agency’s crisis early warning systems, state fragility analyes and “long experience with transitions” to inform broader U.S. response and policy options when countries plunge into chaos or, even better, before they do.

“Our role as a development agency is also to bring analysis, solutions and expertise to the mix when it comes to seizing the opportunities and tackling the challenges that confront our government every day and in every corner of the world,” Smith said.

She continued, “Our challenge now is to build the system to ensure that USAID’s extraordinary foundation of knowledge is brought to the policy table with rigor and with regularity.”

Wednesday’s remarks were Smith’s first policy speech since taking USAID’s top spot in December. She comes to the agency from the National Security Council, where she helped shape the Obama administration’s aid policies. Many expect her to now shrink — at least for a few months — the distance between USAID’s wing of the Ronald Reagan Building and the White House.

Her tenure also comes as a profusion of global humanitarian emergencies are stretching aid resources worldwide. In such an environment, USAID needs to be a more agile agency, capable of responding quickly to emerging opportunities, she said.

Yet Smith challenged policymakers not to allow crises to prevent long-term thinking about development and investments in systems and institutions that would leave countries and communities better prepared to weather a crisis. She pressed for “strategic patience” with USAID’s mission, “to support the interventions before us until they succeed.” Development transitions rarely happen in four years, or even eight, she said.

She pointed to the Global Health Security Agenda — an investment worth more than $1 billion that aims to prevent, detect and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks in 17 countries — as an example of the kind of long-term preparatory work that should be emphasized. Longer-term programs can continue even as isaster assistance response teams deploy to countries such as Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia.

“Even as we respond, we need to make sure the urgent does not crowd out the important,” Smith said.

Smith proposed a “systemic” approach to public-private partnerships that operate at a larger scale and with greater power to “achieve impact across supply chains.”

With just one year left in the Obama administration, Smith acknowledged her tenure could be short. But at least some of her goals are likely to find bipartisan support. The USAID chief was introduced by one Republican and one Democrat, each of whom stressed the bipartisan consensus backing U.S. foreign assistance.

In his introductory remarks, Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia nudged Smith to consider a longer tenure.

“I’m hoping that she has a lot more time than she thinks she’s going to have in this role,” he said.

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About the author

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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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