Opinion: Merging USAID's disaster offices means answering hard questions. Here they are.

The Ronald Reagan Building, which houses the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Mike Gifford / CC BY-NC-SA

The Trump Administration’s recently released fiscal year 19 budget proposal outlines a plan to merge the United States Agency for International Development’s two humanitarian response offices — the Office of Food for Peace and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance — into a new standalone humanitarian assistance bureau.

As the immediate previous directors of those two offices, we believe this reform — if done right — could improve and extend the reach of U.S. humanitarian assistance. However, we are deeply concerned that the FY19 budget pairs this change with an accompanying proposal to cut overall humanitarian assistance funding and eliminate food assistance resources. Such draconian budget moves would more than negate any potential gains from the proposed reform. As Congress reviews the administration’s merger plans, it should press the administration to demonstrate that this is a constructive reform, not a fig leaf for deep funding cuts.

What the budget bill says about the future of US aid

As they pored over the 2,000-plus page budget bill signed into law Friday in the United States, development experts hunted for winners and losers — and for signals as to how lawmakers will seek to steer U.S. development policy this year and into the future. Here are the details.

OFDA and FFP are well known brands in humanitarian and development circles, and together account for more than $5 billion in annual programming to prevent and respond to global humanitarian crises, mostly through nongovernment organizations and United Nations agencies. These two offices have been vital to American foreign policy for more than five decades.

Created in 1964, OFDA’s mission is to save lives, alleviate human suffering, and reduce the social and economic impact of disasters worldwide. It leads and coordinates frontline overseas disaster responses in crises such as the Haiti earthquake, the Syrian civil war, the super-typhoon in the Philippines, and the Ebola pandemic in West Africa. FFP dates back even further, to 1954. It combats hunger and malnutrition, especially among women and children, and is the world’s leading donor of global food assistance, providing aid in places like Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. It sponsors the Famine Early Warning Systems network, which sounds the alarm on looming food emergencies, and FFP also supports multiyear development programs designed to reduce the long-term need for emergency food aid. Both OFDA and FFP are active in conflict zones, from Syria, to Iraq, to Somalia and beyond.

Not only do these offices help alleviate immense human suffering — a vital mission in and of itself — but they also promote U.S. values as a compassionate nation and further our national interests by mitigating the effects of violence and other overseas crises. Andrew Natsios, President George W. Bush’s former USAID Administrator, once called the agency and its constituent offices, “the most important tool of American influence in the developing world.”

But the offices are also beginning to show their age. In recent years, the funding and functions of the two offices have increasingly overlapped as the food/nonfood distinction on which they are based has eroded. Relief methodologies have evolved away from siloed, sector-based interventions of the last century: Humanitarians now recognize that food aid underperforms if it is not closely integrated with other interventions such as water and sanitation provision, and vice versa. Program innovations, such as the growing use of cash- and voucher-based aid programming for example, have blurred the lines between food and nonfood programs. A disaster survivor might receive a food voucher in the morning from FFP and a voucher for seeds in the afternoon from OFDA.

This was why, as the directors of these two offices, we launched an in-depth study in 2016 on the opportunities and pitfalls of consolidating their missions. Through that process we came to believe that a combined entity retaining the full authorities and programming tools of both offices made sense. It could enable greater coherence and efficiency, offering an improved “user experience” for partners and, most important, for those receiving the aid. That study, and our decades of work in the field of humanitarian response, leads us to endorse such dramatic change in principle.

But effective execution, motivated by the right objectives, will be key to success. The process of consolidating a staff of hundreds and a multibillion dollar budget will be complex and time-consuming — a major management challenge in an agency that still lacks nominees for most of its key senior positions. It would need to harmonize the best practices of both OFDA and FFP while seeking efficiencies in strategic planning and grant giving. And it would entail giving up the long valued OFDA and FFP brands to create a new, unified voice. With this in mind, we see several areas where stakeholders in Congress and in the relief community should focus particular attention.

Here are the five questions — and considerations — these stakeholders should be thinking about.

1. What is the purpose and vision behind this merger? 

The rationale for a merger is compelling in terms of the potential for enhanced program impact. But the pairing of this proposal with a budget that would eliminate the $1.9 billion Food for Peace Title II account and cut the International Disaster Assistance Account raises serious concerns. These budget reductions translate into some 34 million people being be cut off from lifesaving food and other kinds of humanitarian assistance. If this merger is simply a fig leaf for a debilitating budget cut, then it should not go forward. With the world facing historic levels of conflict and food insecurity, any new configuration should reflect the robust operational resources needed to sustain U.S. leadership in meeting these challenges.

2. What level of authority will the new entity have? 

We believe strongly that a merger will only work if it is also an elevation: The new structure should be a full bureau within USAID, not an office. The size of a merged entity — with a potential budget around $5 billion and hundreds of staff in Washington, D.C., and around the world — would make it larger than most other USAID bureaus. Elevating it to this rank would give it the appropriate political weight in the agency and the interagency, commensurate to its resources and responsibilities. Given the substantial management burden that running this new entity will entail, a bureau-level management complement will also be vital to ensuring adequate strategic oversight and managerial bandwidth.

3. How will a merger preserve the distinctive technical capacities of each office? 

USAID is unique amongst donors in having deep, dedicated technical and programmatic expertise in food aid. It will be important that this capability not be lost amidst a merger. FFP’s technical leadership provides both an important hub for global food aid innovation, and a level of technically proficient oversight of WFP that no other donor can match. OFDA likewise has world-leading technical capabilities around issues like shelter, water and sanitation, and health. As the technical capabilities are brought together, care must be taken to avoid any erosion of distinctive analytical tools and processes — in particular FFP’s unique capabilities around slow-onset drought emergencies.

4. How will finance and procurement processes and personnel systems be reconciled?

Over their decades-long histories, both offices have evolved different systems for grant making, budget planning, administration, and personnel. For example, FFP typically employs foreign service officers in the field, who report to local mission directors, while OFDA relies on personal service contractors who report back to OFDA/Washington, D.C.. Both offices budget differently for new-onset emergencies: OFDA draws on an internal emergency response fund, while FFP, which manages a large commodity as well as cash portfolio, adjusts its resource allocations monthly based on FEWSNET and other early warning projections of evolving food needs in affected countries. Reconciling these sorts of processes will take significant bureaucratic effort, and there will be a risk of delays in response as the bureaucratic machine is reassembled.

5. What role will the new bureau have in resilience programs?

Both OFDA and FFP manage substantial nonemergency programs that reduce the long-term need for humanitarian aid: OFDA on disaster risk reduction and FFP on development programs that mitigate severe hunger. Annually this constitutes a half billion dollar pool for tackling the important linkages between immediate emergency relief and longer term disaster mitigation — something unique in the donor community. But there have been debates for years about whether FFP’s programs in particular should shift to USAID’s Bureau for Food Security — a debate that this restructuring could re-open. We believe strongly that FFP development programs and OFDA disaster risk reduction portfolios are vital to reducing the need for relief, and should continue to sit within a new humanitarian bureau.

A final, overarching point: It will be important that USAID consult and engage its implementing partners to solicit their perspectives on these changes. If OFDA and FFP give way to one unified global response team, the USAID humanitarian architecture as we have known it for more than 50 years will cease to exist. The opportunities for improved impact are great, but the risks are real as well. Partners will want to have a stake in this, and USAID should welcome that engagement.

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

About the authors

  • Dina Esposito

    As vice president of technical leadership, Dina Esposito leads Mercy Corps’ team of global technical experts who spearhead strategy and support programming in over 40 countries. Previously she served six years as the director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, where she oversaw the agency’s $2.8 billion relief and development food assistance program.
  • Jeremy Konyndyk

    Jeremy Konyndyk is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. He previously served in the Obama administration from 2013-2017 as the director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, where he led the U.S. government’s response to international disasters.