A former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development told lawmakers Wednesday that the “gymnastics exercise” required for USAID to fulfill congressional earmarks is a “distraction” from strategic priorities such as countering China.
“Regardless of what else is discussed here today, the continued failure to address the harmful aspects of Congressional earmarks would be insincere,” said Bonnie Glick, now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Notably, the issue of congressional earmarks — also known as “funding directives” — was not raised again during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the state of international development one year into the COVID-19 pandemic.
The problem: In her written testimony, Glick cited research from CSIS finding that 89% of USAID’s sectoral and programmatic funding for fiscal year 2020 was restricted by congressional directives, which lawmakers use to specify how the money they appropriate should be spent.
In a whirlwind of activity, with USAID acting Administrator John Barsa’s term set to expire, the White House has fired his deputy to allow him to remain at the agency’s helm.
“This level of direction effectively handcuffs policymakers and does not allow for creative approaches to problem-solving. It also makes it difficult to respond to new development opportunities in an entrepreneurial manner,” wrote Glick, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and subsequently ousted from the agency.
USAID missions are often forced to figure out how the same funding can respond to multiple earmarks due to the number of these directives they receive, Glick noted.
“But this gymnastics exercise diverts attention from the big picture funding opportunities where USAID can be used as an effective and strategic tool to counter a resurgent China,” she said.
Why it matters: Lawmakers routinely charge that U.S. foreign assistance should be more accountable and show better results. Meanwhile, many aid experts say the appropriations process limits the agency’s flexibility in responding to changing conditions and priorities in countries where it operates.