For the U.S. aid community, Tuesday was a study in contradiction.
While the government shutdown dominated headlines, most aid officials went to work as usual — a far cry from the dramatic scenes industry veterans may remember from a snowy winter 18 years ago, the last time the U.S. federal government ground to a halt.
And at a time aid implementers, partner governments and the public are yearning for answers, the government is scaling back communications.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Millennium Challenge Corp. all pledged to continue business as usual in Washington, D.C. and missions around the world for the foreseeable future, operating on residual funds and continuing to honor existing contracts and grants.
Staff retreats and happy hours that had been previously scheduled appeared to stay on schedule, while new events and travel was discouraged.
Other agencies fared much worse. The Department of Commerce, for instance, furloughed 87 percent of its staff of 46,420 — the White House itself 74 percent, according to The Washington Post.
The Obama administration considers USAID a national security agency. In 2010, a presidential policy directive elevated development alongside defense and diplomacy and suggested the USAID administrator would be invited to join National Security Council sessions on occasion.
But even though the U.S. aid apparatus appears to fare much better under this shutdown, uncertainty persists.
How long would residual funds last? To what degree would continued uncertainty affect critical decision-making processes? And how will international development partners respond to it all?
“A lot of people were in denial that the shutdown would actually happen,” one USAID official told Devex, suggesting the agency would be able to operate for several weeks under a government shutdown.
The State Department reported only a handful of foreign assistance assistance accounts with one-year availability where a delay in appropriations could be felt more immediately, including programs related to international military education and training, foreign military financing, peacekeeping operations and international organizations and programs. State’s Office of Inspector General is shutting down, and security assistance for Israel will be delayed.
An extended shutdown will force additional closures and furloughs, Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of State for management, told colleagues on Monday. The uncertainty caused by the shutdown, he said, will hinder diplomacy and development and deplete U.S. flexibility to respond to national security imperatives.
It is this uncertainty, indeed, which now breeds concern within the aid community, and especially the many foreign governments and implementing partners that rely on U.S. development funding. It is bringing back memories of the chaos surrounding the last government shutdown, which lasted a total of 28 days between late 1995 and early 1996 and affected some operations abroad.
“We prepared well for the 1996 shutdown, but there is no easy way,” Brian Atwood, who served as USAID administrator at the time, wrote in an e-mail to Devex on Monday. “We had to declare which employees were ‘essential,’ which meant that many of our best people had occasion to question their worth.”
Atwood, who also chairs the Devex board of advisors, recalled having staff meetings at home and in local restaurants.
“It was even more difficult to explain this to host governments and partners,” he continued. “Not many Americans suffered because of a shutdown of foreign assistance programs, but many of our friends in developing countries did, as did our international reputation.”
Humanitarian operations remained open, Atwood said, but were under serious strain as USAID officials could not be paid.
Industry officials this week told Devex they fear that even though U.S. aid agencies remain open, important decisions related to policy, programming and partnership will be delayed due to funding uncertainty.
“The longer this goes on, the more it’s going to bite,” said George Ingram, a former USAID assistant administrator who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I think once you get to two weeks, you get decisions not being made, you [will see the Overseas Private Investment Corp., for example,] unable to write new insurance and contracts, a backlog of deals that don’t got through.”
“People in Washington don’t understand the impact this has around the world,” Ingram continued. “Development projects have a cycle and a momentum and you interrupt that and it takes time and effort to rekindle.”
Efforts to understand, let alone explain, how the shutdown may or may not affect programs has become a major pastime within aid circles, and a source of frustration for many.
“It is not easy to explain to colleagues,” Heather Robinson, who identified herself as a Peace Corps staff member in Africa, wrote about the shutdown in a Facebook post. “Thankful we do not have a collaboration with local partners on good governance.”
U.S. government agencies are expected to significantly reduce media outreach — and in particular, their social media footprint — in the days ahead, just as USAID officials are facing an onslaught of questions from partner governments, implementing partners and others eager to get clarity on how the shutdown may affect their work.
And while the aid continues to flow, employees still show up for work and partners continue to implement U.S. aid projects around the globe, cracks in the façade of “business as usual” might soon start to show.
Paul Stephens contributed reporting.
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