Opinion: A sensible way to strengthen U.S. humanitarian response and leadership

Relief supplies with the U.S. Agency for International Development logo. Photo by: Lance Cheung / USDA / CC BY

As past directors of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, with experience providing humanitarian assistance over the past 40 years, we have long believed that a single humanitarian implementing entity would improve humanitarian assistance.

Our current system consists of three separate entities: Two are situated in the United States Agency for International Development and work with people displaced by disaster or conflict in their own country. USAID’s OFDA is responsible for leading and coordinating the U.S. government’s response to disasters overseas. USAID’s Food for Peace provides food aid and cash assistance. The third, the Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration is situated in the U.S. State Department. The bureau’s mandate concerns refugees — those who have fled across an international border.

This structure impairs the U.S. government’s ability to push needed reforms with the United Nations, other large international agencies, and with the global humanitarian response community writ large. It also fosters silos that complicate coordination, reduce effectiveness, and promote conflicts between state and USAID.

Funding decisions are too often based on artificial procedural constructs and negotiated agreements lacking the situational awareness that would come with one entity deploying available humanitarian resources as appropriate. This sometimes means that organizational agendas are put before humanitarian agendas. Moreover, the need to better integrate relief programs with development programs, particularly in recovery from conflict, is impeded by this disjointed funding structure.

Combining the three offices is not a new idea. It has been studied and discussed for more than two decades. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its reform plan, is considering combining all three offices into a single humanitarian body. We support this change to create a single office that can bring coherence to our relief efforts and optimize the strength of U.S. policy and use of taxpayer funds.

“President Donald Trump’s administration, in its reform plan, is considering combining all three offices into a single humanitarian body. We support this change.”

The administration wants to ensure that U.S. diplomatic influence is applied to humanitarian concerns. In many instances, whether in natural disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake and floods, or conflicts such as the recent civil war in South Sudan, USAID and the Department of State have worked closely together, combining diplomacy and humanitarian action to address humanitarian crises. Combining all three offices within USAID will ultimately clarify the U.S. humanitarian voice while continuing a long history of collaborating on diplomatic efforts.

The State Department’s refugee bureau, PRM, should, however, remain in place as the U.S. diplomatic voice for refugees and migrants. The administration has even talked about ending PRM altogether and moving its resettlement functions to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. We do not support dismantling PRM. This possible outcome of change will not improve, but instead tear down capabilities and commitments, which is particularly dangerous given the administration's hostility toward refugees and migrants.

The bureau's role in refugee admissions and in coordinating international efforts to assist and protect refugees and migrants have long been viewed as effective national security tools with a long history of bipartisan support. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security does not have the diplomatic or policy experience in these areas to effectively execute this mission, which means that the U.S. will effectively abdicate its leadership position. This will likely lead to even more pressure on our own borders and greater global threats. It would also exacerbate the untold suffering so many already endure as they seek refuge from conflicts and persecution.

We believe that the right approach is combining all three relief entities under USAID, which would strengthen the U.S.’s ability to meet humanitarian needs, while keeping the refugee bureau intact to skillfully and diplomatically deal with broader refugee and migration issues. Refugee protection and admissions, along with humanitarian assistance, are mutually supportive efforts. It would be the cruelest of ironies for the U.S. to offer more effective humanitarian aid abroad while closing its doors to refugees and silencing America’s strong voice for the protection of refugees and migrants. We urge the administration to follow a more sensible reorganization of humanitarian assistance that creates a single office for assistance and preserves the skilled diplomatic protection of refugees.  

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Gregory Gottlieb

    Gregory Gottlieb is responsible for the overall direction of the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Throughout his career, he has worked to improve food security, humanitarian, and transition programs and he brings this focus, dedication and determination to Tufts.
  • Roy Williams

    Howard (Roy) Williams is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. He has also lectured at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California; the American University in Washington, D.C.; and the University Swiss Italia in Lugano, Switzerland. He has designed and led crisis preparedness and response simulations in various locations for the NOHA network of European universities, hosted in the Netherlands.