USAID@50. It’s a New World; Not Unlike the Old One.

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the USAID turning 50 amid 2012 funding deliberations, Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development discusses possible cuts to the agency’s budget and how a reduced expense account could affect operations and efficacy.

There is a birthday card that says:  Congratulations.  At 50, you are a national treasure.  Unfortunately, Congress has appropriated no funds for your maintenance. It’s funny in a card.  For a government agency, not so much.

It is ironic then that USAID will officially celebrate its 50th anniversary this week, the same week that the Senate plans on taking up its 2012 funding bill.  It is well understood that in the current budget environment all government spending needs to be scrutinized, including aid.  Most people across the political spectrum who have taken the time to inspect foreign assistance spending agree that aid serves important foreign policy goals and supports U.S. national security.

When the bill hits the Senate floor, there may be amendments to cut this or that.  Senators may resist some cuts to actual programs where there is a known constituency or a consensus on its value, such as HIV/AIDS funding or food security.

This may lead some to attempt to cut USAID’s administrative accounts, such as its Operating Expense (OE) account. Cuts of this nature could set USAID up for failure (in one more way than what my colleague Nandini Oomman offers with regard to the Global Health Initiative). USAID cannot be expected to successfully design high impact programs, effectively monitor and evaluate them, implement them in the field, and be a world leader on development thinking without the required staffing or expertise. Nothing could be more short-sighted than to undermine an agency’s ability to manage programs.

Here’s the problem.  During the 1990s, USAID’s staffing was allowed to wither due to many factors, not the least being reduced funding and a post-Cold War complacency in government and among the American public.  After 9/11, the value of U.S. global engagement was rediscovered and aid funding began to steadily increase.  But, USAID had been so weakened in the intervening years that policy makers lost confidence in its ability to manage two new large programs – PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Account.

Consider that between 1970 and 2005, USAID direct hires fell by 65%.  Such a decline seriously undermined expertise in such critical areas as agriculture, health, engineering, and contracting.  The agency of the 2000s was left with some long-timers, many of whom were eyeing retirement, and a deeply depleted collection of mid-level and entry level staff. As a result, many development contracts were outsourced to private entities and other government agencies.

Long before the Obama administration’s two studies (QDDR and PPD) called for strengthening USAID, the Bush administration had begun to rebuild the agency’s staffing through the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI). The current administration has maintained the DLI:  since 2008, 830 new hires – mostly junior officers – have been brought on board.  Today’s agency is much stronger but is still a little green – about two-thirds of staff have been with the agency 3 years or less

The House and Senate appropriations committees have offered different visions for the future of USAID.  While the Administration’s budget request of $1.5 billion for OE would allow for hiring an additional 95 mid-level professionals to staff presidential initiatives such as food security, the House version represents a 34% cut.  At that level, USAID would have to RIF and furlough staff.  The Senate number at $1.35 billion would essentially freeze funding at 2011 levels.

The Catch-22 is that Congress expects USAID to produce results in order to justify the value of foreign assistance while simultaneously preparing to deny it the resources to do so. The frenzy to cut government spending during the mid-1990s produced reductions that were disproportionate to program dollars and roundly regretted a decade later.  It’s hard to have perfect foresight, but perhaps we could learn from the past?

Republished with permission from the Center for Global Development. View original article.

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