USAID administrators: The conversation continues

A 2008 photo exhibit at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts celebrated more than five decades of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. Photo by: U.S. Embassy Pakistan / CC BY-ND

There was incredible interest in our recent interactive series “USAID: A history of U.S. foreign aid,” which explores how administrators of the U.S. Agency for International Development shaped American foreign policy and assistance through the years.

The global attention proved that while the track records of these important officials are often hidden in the shadows, there remains a special appreciation for their work and contributions across the global development community.

Over the past several weeks, we collected feedback and commentary from development professionals stationed around the world — including global health and education experts, prominent researchers and academics as well as current and former USAID and State Department officials. These opinions and perspectives will remain an important part of the series, and we encourage more of them.

There’s perhaps no better tribute to author John Norris’ work than the willingness of three former administrators to provide their own observations in response to it.

One overarching theme from all three public servants was simply that USAID is a mission-critical organization and one that should be properly funded. Another was that administrators don’t work in a vacuum. Any success that can be attributed to their tenures should recognize the team they worked with and the president who appointed them. And despite the difficulties of executing sustainable programs among the fickle, and oftentimes brutal, environment that is Washington, D.C., many of the programs they and their teams worked hard to implement continue to shape the agency today.

J. Brian Atwood, touted as responsible for “saving” USAID in the 1990s, stressed that he had the support of a strong group of appointees and career leaders, none of whom were “the least bit naïve about Capitol Hill politics or State Department pressures.” Calling the story of the nineties for USAID one of success in adversity, Atwood attributed his success to a multidisciplinary and talented team that could navigate Washington and institute lasting development reforms.

Similarly, Peter McPherson, the agency’s longest-serving chief to date — and one of its most beloved — praised the career staff at USAID that not only helped administrators accomplish their big agenda, but also contributed significantly in the countries or regions they worked in. McPherson stressed the importance of documenting the agency’s history so USAID employees can get the attention they deserve.

According to Andrew Natsios, who served under President George W. Bush, USAID administrators are not “independent actors” but “an integral part” of a president’s foreign policy. Natsios highlighted some of what he believed were USAID’s most impactful programs and addressed the future USAID agenda, recommending that aid programs be recentralized in USAID rather than spread out across the U.S. government.

As the saying goes, you can't know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.

Amid all the turmoil playing out overseas and momentous foreign policy decision being hashed out behind closed doors, and as speculation over imminent leadership changes at the Reagan Building continues, the history of USAID is still being written. So thank you for reading the series, and stay tuned to Devex as we continue this important conversation.

What role should the USAID administrator stake out in setting U.S. foreign policy? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Troilo pete%2520head

    Pete Troilo

    As director of global advisory and analysis, Pete manages 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.