USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in celebration of the U.S. aid agency’s 50th year. Photo by: CSIS / CC BY-NC-SA

The U.S. Agency for International Development has been around for over half a century. As the primary U.S. government foreign aid agency, USAID currently works in more than 100 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, and commands the majority of a yearly U.S. foreign aid budget of approximately $30 billion. Earlier this year, the agency refined and refreshed its mission statement: “We partner to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity.”

That’s a serious duty for USAID leaders in today’s highly interconnected, unstable and inequitable world. Much of that responsibility inevitably falls to the USAID administrator who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Since 1961, when John F. Kennedy created the agency, there have been 16 different administrators who oversee billions of dollars, manage a staff spread across the globe and make decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people in poverty.

Yet, despite holding an office with such global influence, USAID administrators operate in relative obscurity. They are rarely remembered for good or bad. Even reconstructing a proper list of administrators and their dates of service takes serious effort.

Few positions in the U.S. government are more important but receive less public note than that of USAID administrator.

The lost sense of history helps explain why we have had such a hit-and-miss track record of administrators. Without some appreciation for why the job is important and what has separated people who perform in the role from those who do not, we almost make it easy for administrations to appoint people with far less experience than they need to succeed. The collective oversight is even more puzzling when you factor in that USAID has been summoned repeatedly to the front lines of the world’s most dire situations — from famines in Asia and Africa to the AIDS epidemic to the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.

To advance the conversation, Devex is contributing one chronicle of events. Our five-part series, “USAID: A History of U.S. Foreign Aid,” and interactive timeline guide readers through a history of America’s premier aid agency by exploring the USAID administrators’ greatest accomplishments and sharpest setbacks within the broader context of American foreign policy.

Some Devex members and readers probably know our author John Norris. A veteran of both the U.S. Department of State and USAID, and current executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress, Norris set out to solicit opinions from a wide bipartisan, and in many cases notably nonpartisan, cross-section of more than a dozen seasoned development experts about the different administrators and their contributions and shortcomings. In all of the cases, the interviewees had served under or worked with multiple administrators covering significant time spans.

While the commentary is subjective, Norris’ findings are grounded in thorough and extensive research, including an analysis of the series of oral histories assembled by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, which contains some 1,800 interviews with former State and USAID staffers and dates back to the early days of USAID. To compliment his reporting, we also conducted a series of video interviews through which Norris defines some of the attributes of a successful USAID administrator, explains the power balance between USAID and State, and discusses how the USAID mission has shifted over time.

Few positions in the U.S. government are more important but receive less public note than that of USAID administrator. The analysis here is not meant to be the last word, but amid speculation that the current USAID administrator is set to step down, we do hope it sparks public debate and discussion. We also hope it encourages the international development community to appreciate its own profound history and importance.

We encourage you to share this special series with other professionals in development, research and academia and look forward to comments and vibrant conversation from you and the rest of our community.

Please read the rest of our five-part series, “USAID: A History of U.S. Foreign Aid,” which also includes video interviews and an interactive timeline spanning events from 1961 — the year John F. Kennedy established USAID — to the present time.

About the author

  • Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.