Minorities less likely to get promoted in USAID civil service, watchdog finds

The Government Accountability Office headquarters in Washington. Photo by: kafka4prez / CC BY-SA

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Promotion rates in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s civil service are significantly higher for white employees than for racial and ethnic minorities, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.

GAO found that the odds of promotion for early-career to midcareer USAID civil service employees were 31% to 41% lower for racial and ethnic minorities than for white people between fiscal years 2002 and 2018. For example, the watchdog found that between fiscal years 2002 and 2017, an average of 38.9% of racial or ethnic minorities were promoted from the GS-11 to GS-12 government pay scale level, compared with an average of 69.9% of white employees.

The report comes amid protests over systemic racism and discrimination in the U.S. and after reports that USAID employees have circulated a letter calling on acting Administrator John Barsa and agency leaders “to improve hiring outreach, fix our broken talent pipeline, and ensure that incoming and current nonwhite staff have equal opportunities and are paid and promoted equitably to their colleagues.”

The GAO analysis was not able to arrive at any causal explanation for the differences in promotion rates, but it pointed to significant understaffing of USAID’s Office of Civil Rights and Diversity, which is responsible for ensuring the agency performs required equal employment opportunity activities.

“We are committed to creating a workplace that provides equal opportunities for career development, advancement, and success, which in turn will help us retain the diverse workforce that we recruit.”

— Pooja Jhunjhunwala, acting spokesperson, USAID

Since 2010, OCRD has had a vacancy rate between 23% and 63%, with 46% of the office’s allotted positions unfilled through April of this year, the report found.

“According to USAID officials, vacancies have a greater effect on smaller offices such as OCRD, where fewer staff are available to take on the resulting extra work. The officials said that this can in turn affect morale, which can increase staff turnover,” the report reads.

GAO found that staff shortages have contributed to delays in responding to equal employment opportunity complaints and have required the office “to prioritize reacting to negative events rather than undertaking proactive efforts to increase diversity.”

Source: “USAID: Mixed Progress in Increasing Diversity, and Actions Needed to Consistently Meet EEO Requirements

The watchdog found that the proportion of racial or ethnic minorities at USAID increased from 33% in fiscal year 2002 to 37% in fiscal year 2018 but noted disparities between different ethnic groups. While the proportion of Asian and Hispanic employees increased over that time frame, the proportion of African Americans fell from 26% to 21% of the agency’s workforce.

GAO’s analysis did not take into account foreign service nationals and contractors.

GAO included four recommendations in its report, all of which USAID agreed to. Three of them related to performing required equal employment opportunity activities, and the fourth called on the agency “to demonstrate senior leadership attention to diversity efforts.”

“We are committed to creating a workplace that provides equal opportunities for career development, advancement, and success, which in turn will help us retain the diverse workforce that we recruit,” Pooja Jhunjhunwala, acting USAID spokesperson, wrote in response to an inquiry from Devex.

In the agency’s official response to GAO’s findings, USAID’s assistant administrator of the Bureau for Management, Frederick Nutt, said that the agency has increased “human and budgetary resources” for OCRD, reduced by 59% the average number of days to complete final actions in response to EEO complaints, and intends to soon release an update of the agency’s Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion.

The response also cited Barsa’s recent message to staff in the wake of protests over racism and police brutality in the U.S., in which the acting administrator wrote that USAID does not “tolerate any form of discrimination or prejudice in our ranks.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.