Gayle Smith, the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Ellie Van Houtte / USAID / CC BY-NC

The U.S. Senate confirmed Gayle Smith to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development as its administrator on Monday.

Smith, formerly special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama and senior director for development and democracy at the U.S. National Security Council, will now a direct a $22 billion bilateral aid effort — the largest in the world — staffed by roughly 4,000 government officials, in partnership with thousands of implementing organizations and grantees.

Smith’s confirmation hearing came seven months after she first sailed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Despite the long delay — which had many wondering whether Smith would be confirmed at all before time runs out on the Obama administration — the Senate voted 79-7 in the foreign aid veteran’s favor. Among the seven senators to vote against her, all of whom were Republicans, was presidential primary contender Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Speaking in support of the nominee, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen blasted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — though without mentioning him by name — for putting politics before good policy at a time when USAID, among other challenges, the agency is helping to face down the worst refugee crisis in over six decades.

“I am relieved that we’re finally going to get to vote on Gayle Smith and that the majority has overcome the objections of the one member who for the last seven months has been holding up her nomination,” Shaheen said.

“That member was willing to put at risk the massive investment of resources that the United States has made in Afghanistan and other parts of the world just to score political points on an issue that was completely outside of Gayle Smith’s portfolio at USAID,” Shaheen added.

Cruz brandished his influence to block all State Department political nominees — and included USAID nominees in that category — in opposition to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

“I’m sure that we’ll have a very broad bipartisan vote in support of Gayle Smith,” Shaheen said. “What’s unfortunate is that we couldn’t have done it seven months ago.”

Before Cruz’s objections took center stage, Smith’s nomination hit a snag over questions about her position on the Helms amendment, which prohibits the use of foreign aid dollars for abortion-related programming. Devex learned at the time that Florida senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio took issue with a questionnaire Smith filled out for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which stated her positions on a variety of issues.

At the time of her nomination, Devex reported on the mark Smith might hope to make on USAID during her tenure as the agency’s chief. Now, with just over a year remaining in the Obama administration, that tenure has been significantly abbreviated, and some priorities will have to take precedent over others. In the space between Smith’s nomination and confirmation, the global refugee crisis stemming from conflict in Syria has intensified. She also takes the reins as climate change commitments and development strategies grow increasingly intertwined.

Smith could lend a strong development voice to these emerging challenges, but she will also be asked to continue the fight to pass legislation securing Obama-era initiatives including Feed the Future and Power Africa — and to address ongoing institutional priorities within USAID. Some division of labor with former acting Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt seems likely, and Lenhardt lent his voice to the chorus of enthusiasm upon Smith’s confirmation.

“I am thrilled to welcome Gayle to USAID and look forward to all the agency will accomplish under her strong leadership,” he said.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power congratulates Smith via Twitter.

Secretary of State John Kerry also congratulated the Senate for the confirmation. “As secretary of state, I can vouch for the fact that the prospects for progress on virtually every major international challenge we face — from terrorism to climate change to emergency preparedness to human rights to the empowerment of women — are enhanced by the work that USAID professionals undertake every day of the year,” Kerry said in a statement.

“So it matters a great deal who leads these efforts, and that is why the Senate’s confirmation of Gayle Smith is such good news, not only for USAID, but also for our country and the world,” he added.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.