U.S. Capitol. So what do we learn from looking back at the evolution of leadership at USAID and the track records of respective administrators? Several things stand out. Photo by: Architect of the Capitol

So what do we learn from looking back at the evolution of leadership at USAID and the track records of respective administrators? Several things stand out.

First and foremost, expertise in development, management and understanding the ways of Washington are crucial in whether an administrator succeed or fails. Those who struggled as administrators tended to have little development experience before taking the job and were new to Washington. All those who have been most successful had practical international and development experience before taking the post and understood how the federal government worked.

It isn’t a shock that people with experience fare better; what is shocking is the number of times that presidents have seen fit to appoint administrators who were expected to magically pick up how to be a good administrator on the fly. Development is a complex endeavor and running the U.S. Agency for International Development is not the best place to get your on-the-job training.

The most accomplished administrators have understood both development policy and the need to nest USAID’s approach within the broad directions of foreign policy.

 

Simply examining the CV of any incoming administrator for development experience is probably the relative gauge of how they are going to do on the job. The development community as a whole probably needs to do a better job speaking out loudly when it looks like underqualified appointees are going to be put in such important posts. Unless there is some political outcry or price to be paid, presidents will continue to put forward some names for USAID administrator that don’t pass the laugh test.

The relation between party affiliation and doing well running the agency is cloudy. Republican presidents have appointed some of the very best administrators and some of the very worst. But as one USAID staffer maintained, “Democrats care about aid; Republicans manage it,” and there may be some truth to that.

In reality, however, some of this may be a structural issue. Competent Republican USAID administrators naturally garner support from Democrats in Congress who want to see assistance programs preserved. Democratic USAID administrators expect little support from Republicans, and Republicans in Congress are often happy to demonize foreign assistance when their party is out of power in the White House but to expand spending when they are. Senator Jesse Helms never tried to eliminate USAID when there was a Republican president.

In this video interview, John Norris looks back on USAID's past, discusses the evolution of the aid agency's mission and talks about the future of the institution.

The links between party affiliation and policy approach have been fairly clear. Republicans have generally been stronger advocates of both free market approaches, less willing to work with multilateral institutions and more prone to “securitize” assistance. Democrats have tended to have more of a people focus, have stressed human rights and democracy to a greater degree, been more willing to work with multilaterals, and stronger supporters of family planning and environmental protection.

The best administrators have tended to take a balanced position, working to promote institutional reform while still keeping an eye on the importance of addressing basic human needs.

The most accomplished administrators have understood both development policy and the need to nest USAID’s approach within the broad directions of foreign policy. They are able to maintain relations with the diverse constituency that cares about aid programs — the State Department, the White House, Congress, nongovernmental organizations, the university community, private contractors, religious groups and others — and make them feel like their disparate efforts are going toward a coherent whole.

Almost all of the good administrators have recognized the importance of USAID’s policy shop, long-term strategic planning and control of the agency’s budget process. It makes sense: Effective development isn’t a simple mechanical exercise of delivering dollars and projects; it requires a strong theory of the case about what you are trying to achieve and how you go about it.

Policy and budget functions have tended to drift toward the State Department under weak and subpar administrators, with senior State Department officials often reasoning that emasculating USAID’s ability to control money and policy was the easiest route to control the agency. USAID’s ability to fend off Helms in the 1990s convinced many in the State Department that poaching USAID’s authority was far easier than doing away with the entire institution.

Turf wars between State and USAID over control of development dollars are as old as the agency itself. Diplomats tend to focus on the short-term political gains that aid might deliver; development experts see their core task as a long-term effort to help a country secure self-sustaining economic growth.

Strong USAID administrators have been able to preserve USAID’s relative autonomy, effectively make the case that successful long-term development programs serve the national interest, and maintain relations with both the White House and Foggy Bottom. While the State Department has always been stronger than USAID, the agency has developed a number of coping mechanisms that have allowed it to survive over the years, and USAID often feels as if it is trying to accomplish development despite the State Department. Equally truly, the State Department often feels that it is advancing diplomacy despite USAID.

Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, even the strongest administrators have limited ability to push back against the State Department, White House and Pentagon when development programs take on a strategic security imperative — which is too bad, since we have repeatedly seen the White House, State and the Department of Defense get the connection between aid programs and security badly wrong. Aid programs are best at promoting the slow, long-term structural changes required to modernize political and economic systems; they are of limited utility in reframing the strategic or military environment in a country of concern.

There is probably one issue on which all of the USAID administrators from the modern era would agree: The agency has become too bogged down in rules, regulations, reporting and earmarks imposed by Congress.

 

Lastly, there is probably one issue on which all of the USAID administrators from the modern era would agree: The agency has become too bogged down in rules, regulations, reporting and earmarks imposed by Congress. Navigating that thicket is onerous for USAID staff and draining for the agency’s leadership, the result of years and years of requirements being layered onto USAID without any old ones ever taken away. This is also explains why many of the important assistance initiatives, like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corp., have been placed outside of USAID in recent years.

Speculation continues to swirl that Administrator Rajiv Shah will leave the agency not far in the future. The White House, State Department and whoever ultimately replaces him at the helm of USAID would be wise to look back at the agency’s history before scheduling any confirmation hearings.

Click here to view our complete interactive series exploring the history of USAID, its administrators and US foreign aid. Join the conversation with our community on social media using #USAIDhistory and don't forget share this series with fellow development professionals, researchers and academics.

About the author

  • John norris

    John Norris

    John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the executive director of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress and was chief of political affairs for the U.N. Mission in Nepal back when the country was emerging from a decadelong war. Earlier in his career, John worked at the State Department and USAID.