Lawmakers question USAID administrator on budget request

United States Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green. Photo by: GES

WASHINGTON — Federal lawmakers questioned United States Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green Wednesday about how he could carry out the agency’s mission with the administration's proposed budget cuts and pushed him on issues ranging from humanitarian crises to girls education to democracy building.

Green was testifying at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the administration’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, which called for a roughly 33 percent cut to USAID’s funding. Later on Wednesday, Congress unveiled its budget agreement for fiscal year 2018, which includes more modest cuts to foreign aid funding — about 6 percent overall, with less for USAID’s operations.

Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California, and the chairman of the committee, said the cuts were regrettable and would impact U.S. priorities from combating terrorists, poachers, and human traffickers, to addressing global health threats, supporting electoral processes and democracy, and responding to the dramatic humanitarian needs.

“These efforts should not be shorted,” he said. “Everyone agrees that these overseas programs can be improved, both USAID and the Department of State need to better align U.S. assistance with our most pressing national security objectives. They also need to eliminate duplication and waste and promote a capable and adjustable workforce. A workforce that's adaptable. However, I worry this budget request will hamstring USAID’s efforts on these fronts.”

The ranking member of the committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, along with others, also hammered the point home.

“I think you’re a great pick for this job Ambassador Green but with a 33 percent cut to USAID’s budget there’s no one who I think could do your job effectively,” he said. “I know as well that you are proposing a lot of reforms at USAID, I just want to ensure that any changes are done to modernize American development and make it work better, not simply starting with a budget number and downsizing to fit it.”

Green had clearly prepared a response to these concerns. Given Congress’ rejection of the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, which included similar cuts, and early responses to the latest budget request, it seemed clear that there would be questions about the deep cuts at the hearing.

“First off, I readily admit that this budget will not allow us to do everything we might want to do in a perfect world and it doesn't allow us to take on every opportunity we might see,” Green said. “I recognize that the president in this budget is attempting to balance the needs that he sees in the security of citizens, advancing American leadership, and his commitment to efficiency and effectiveness.”

He went on to say that it is his job to make the resources “that are generously provided to us” go as far as they can. He told lawmakers he is encouraging partners to do more and is working with countries to improve domestic resource mobilization and increase the funding they have. He is also working with the private sector to engage them earlier in the process and leverage both their financial resources and partnerships they can bring.

Green had to repeat a version of these remarks in response to several questions throughout the hearing, though for some it didn’t quite seem to be a satisfactory response.

“I’ve been a little disappointed you haven't been public in your criticism of these proposed cuts, [but] I’m hoping that within the administration you are screaming loudly about the impact that these kinds of cuts would have on our national security and our leadership in the world,” said Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

Despite the criticism of the budget, there was a lot of praise for Green himself, who when he served in Congress was a member of the committee.

In his statements, Green said that the 2019 request is $1.3 billion higher than the fiscal year 2018 request, and includes about $1 billion in humanitarian assistance. USAID will work to promote ethnic and religious tolerance, strengthen domestic resource mobilization, make sure that programs and procedures are “more private enterprise friendly” and work on procurement reform so that the process is more flexible and responsive, he said.

Green said that if the greatest challenge today is the vast number of displaced people, the number two concern is a growing youth bulge. Feed the Future contributed to helping develop tools in agriculture and food security, with a model built around private sector engagement. Continuing to work in those ways and on agriculture could be a way to help tackle the youth unemployment challenge and help increase engagement, he said.

USAID will also work to strengthen relationships with other development partners. It is working with the United Kingdom Department of International Development at the European Union to shore up relationships and deepen collaboration, Green said. USAID is also in the process of signing a new global memorandum of understanding with MASHAV, Israel’s development agency, that would guide development cooperation with Israel, he added.

Green was questioned on a wide variety of issues, with members taking the opportunity to raise concerns and bring to his attention pending legislation they had authored. Of particular concern were the humanitarian crises in Myanmar, Venezuela, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria, as well as USAID efforts on democratic governance and countering Russian and Chinese influence.

Royce, who last week introduced the Food for Peace Modernization Act, aimed at reforming food aid, asked Green about how food aid could be improved.

Green said that while the administration has not taken a formal position on the legislation, he supports being as nimble and flexible as possible with food assistance and always supports efforts to make dollars go as far as they can.

Support for new US development finance bill, even as some details are questioned

The bipartisan bill proposing the creation of a new United States development finance corporation could truly be a landmark piece of legislation, altering the U.S. development landscape for years or decades to come. While it has generally been well received, a few details may still need ironing out as the bill works its way through the political process. Here are the details.

Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, who co-sponsored the BUILD Act, which aims to create a new development finance institution, tried to get Green’s thoughts about a new U.S. DFI. Green was careful in his response, saying that the administration hadn’t taken a formal position on the legislation, but that he has called for a new DFI for about 10 years, because he thinks it’s an important tool. He added that it is important that integration happen as close to the ground as possible, but declined to discuss the specifics of the legislation.

Several members of Congress raised concerns about the growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and asked about USAID efforts in the region.

On Tuesday, USAID announced that it would provide $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance to support Venezuelans who are now in Colombia after fleeing their country. Green condemned the upcoming snap election, saying it won’t be free, fair, and transparent. He said the funds announced Tuesday were a “down payment” and that he will make sure USAID continues to provide the humanitarian resources that are necessary to address the crisis.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, raised the alarm on Nicaragua, calling out the administration’s elimination of funding for the country in the budget request. She called on Green to work within the administration to reverse that decision and to continue supporting Nicaragua, in part to prevent it from becoming the next Venezuela.

In the Caribbean, USAID provided humanitarian assistance, including food aid, following several major hurricanes and tropical storms last year, but it doesn’t have the resources to carry out rebuilding and resilience work. Instead, it will be partnering with the World Bank on longer term recovery and resilience efforts, Green said.

Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, asked Green about USAID’s position on the elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and what more needs to be done to help address the escalating crisis.

“I do not think simply providing humanitarian assistance is enough,” he said, adding that he is worried that there will be violence leading up to the election and more Congolese will flee, which will destabilize the region. Green also testified about the situation in DRC at a United Nations Security Council meeting this week.

He was asked about countering both China and Russia, and responded that USAID will work to support democracies and improve the ability of countries to lead themselves through technical assistance and civil society support. In Ukraine, USAID will continue supporting civil society and working to improve transparency, accountability, and help them address corruption, Green said.

Working to promote democratic governance will be an important focus for USAID, Green said, adding that it doesn’t mean picking winners and losers. The USAID approach supports civil society and works to ensure free and fair elections, he said.

He was pressed on the impacts of the reinstatement of the “global gag rule,” and asked about issues of sexual harassment and assault plaguing the aid industry by some members of Congress.

At the end of the year, the State Department and USAID will put out a more detailed report about the impacts of the Mexico City policy, adding that the budget request for fiscal year 2019 had $302 million requested from family planning, funds that weren’t requested in fiscal year 2018, Green said.

On the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct, Green said it is an issue that he is paying personal attention to and that earlier this month he met with InterAction, the Professional Services Council, and U.N. agencies “to make clear to partners that USAID will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse,” Green said. USAID is reviewing policies and procedures to identify and close gaps and strengthen accountability and compliance. He has also spoken to all of the mission directors and asked them to reach out to implementing partners to discuss the issue, and make clear the agency’s policies, he said.

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  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.