Opinion: The toll of budget dysfunction on US development leadership

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While most Americans are working on their New Year’s resolutions, Washington is crippled by a costly government shutdown caused by not passing this year’s budget.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget is working on its budget request levels for the 2020 fiscal year. It’s typically a time of adrenaline, but even more so now given the Trump administration’s quest to cut the international affairs budget by 30 percent while already facing a government shutdown. From shutdowns to delays, to other inefficiencies, the impact of a broken budget process takes an enormous toll on our ability to exert influence around the world.

“If USAID is to achieve its goal of self-reliance, countries must be treated as partners.”

Unfortunately, an erratic budget process and the threat of government shutdowns are not new. I experienced my first shutdown in 1995 while serving at U.S. Agency for International Development Nicaragua and was deemed an “essential” federal employee. This meant long 12-14 hour days over the holidays while my “nonessential” colleagues, who were sorely missed, were forced to cease work and went off for the holidays not knowing when they would return or if they would be paid. This introduced me to the world of contingency planning, which became a constant during my 25 years of public service.

Countless hours were spent preparing options to decide which programs and staff to keep on board. Other programs were slowed down to a trickle with the hope that a budget deal would be reached before prematurely closing a program that affected countless lives. This means lifesaving projects on the ground are operating at a snail’s pace to conserve resources as they wait to learn if their project is one that will be cut.

Not only does scenario planning take an enormous amount of time — which wastes taxpayer money — it also leads to a lack of confidence in United States leadership. Our counterparts on the ground question whether the U.S. government is a reliable partner and not surprisingly, it feeds into negative rhetoric about the lack of U.S leadership.

Even when this government shutdown ends, budget paralysis will continue unless reforms are undertaken. USAID’s reforms under Administrator Mark Green’s leadership are a good start.

The proposal to bring the budget, policy, and strategy function together under one bureau is critical for USAID to achieve results. As the former head of USAID’s policy bureau, I saw firsthand the negative impact of USAID missions developing country strategies that would never be fully realized without an accompanying budget.

For example, many USAID missions during my tenure as the head of policy planning and learning identified democracy, rights, and governance as the constraint preventing development, but this money was scarce, and missions were often forced to accept earmarked or initiative money that did not enable the experts on the ground to address the real issue affecting their country’s development.

Administrator Green has proposed bringing greater alignment between budget and strategy, which will not only lead to increased policy coherence, but it will help fulfill the vision of country self-reliance. This proposal, as well as other reforms, are now with Congress and deserve immediate approval.

Bringing policy and budget together under one roof at USAID will not be a panacea, and additional steps should be taken within USAID and on the Hill.

Within USAID, it’s imperative to streamline the number of clearances and directives to reduce the amount of time between budget and strategy preparation to execution.

All field programs over $20 million now need to be reviewed in USAID Washington under a senior obligation alignment review,” which requires months of review and clearances. Some would argue these delays arise from an abundance of caution and a lack of confidence in career staff who are talented professionals with centuries of field experience in each country. Regardless of the reason, it must be reformed, or program delays will continue to tie USAID in knots resulting in decreased effectiveness of its mission — including the administrator’s goal of country self-reliance.

For the important humanitarian and development work of USAID around the world, flexibility and agility are key. Yet, congressional earmarks and administration directives account for more than 90 percent of the USAID budget, which leaves partners with little choice but to accept what is being offered, even if it does not necessarily meet their highest priorities. If USAID is to achieve its goal of self-reliance, countries must be treated as partners. Numerous examples exist of the impact of U.S. foreign assistance when we engage as partners and have the flexibility in our funding to respond to real needs.

As mission director at USAID Colombia, I saw firsthand how small amounts of flexible funding allowed us to test new approaches with the government of Colombia to stabilize ungoverned spaces previously controlled by FARC or paramilitaries. Flexible funding sources such as the complex crisis fund have been critical to responding quickly to complex crises.

In Zimbabwe, USAID used this unique and small fund in 2012 to initiate the “Zimbabwe Works” project so young men were working in the lead up to the 2013 elections. The success of this program, implemented by the International Youth Foundation, led to the British and Swedish aid agencies joining in and served nearly 29,000 young Zimbabweans, with projected earnings of $31 million in incremental income over a twelve-month period. Countries such as Colombia and Zimbabwe are complex, but these are just two examples of where development experts with the right tools can have a significant impact.

At the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s 2018 Tribute Dinner, USAID Administrator Green highlighted the rise of authoritarian regimes — including China —  and the uniqueness of the American approach toward development that focuses on long-term sustainability rather than dependence.

America’s development leadership not only projects our unique values but is also clearly in our national interest with examples of many countries that evolved from being recipients of development assistance to strong trading partners for the U.S. However, without reforms — including a more optimally structured USAID, a planning process free from endless clearances, and increased flexibility from Congress — American interests abroad and our partner countries’ development trajectories will suffer.

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

About the author

  • Susan Reichle

    Susan Reichle is the International Youth Foundation’s president and chief executive officer. She came to IYF in 2017 after 25 years with USAID as a foreign service officer, including serving in Haiti, Nicaragua, Russia, and Colombia as well as Washington. As the assistant to the administrator for policy planning and learning, Susan spearheaded policy development, including the agency's first youth and development policy.