USAID chief deliberates West Bank and Gaza assistance, teases agency 'transformation'

A Palestinian walks past a ceramic sign of a U.S. Agency for International Development project in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Photo by: REUTERS / Mussa Qawasma

WASHINGTON — U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green would welcome the opportunity to work with Congress on changes to the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act that resulted in the termination of USAID funding to the West Bank and Gaza. The USAID chief broached the subject on Wednesday during a wide-ranging hearing on Capitol Hill, in which he also provided an update on the status of the agency’s ongoing reorganization.

“We welcome the chance to continue discussions with you on the future of West Bank/Gaza assistance,” Green said in a hearing at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

“But as a result of the passage of that law we’ve been directed by attorneys at the State Department and at USAID and again, at the specific request of the Palestinian Authority, to cease assistance.”

USAID, US NGOs leave Gaza, West Bank over terrorism law

Unintended consequences of a 2018 U.S. anti-terrorism law mean that USAID and U.S. NGOs can no longer operate in Gaza and the West Bank, cutting off funds for programs already obligated.

ATCA was passed by Congress in 2018 and stipulates that any foreign government that accepts certain types of foreign assistance from the U.S. is then eligible to be prosecuted in U.S. courts for damages related to terrorism. This provision led the Palestinian Authority to inform Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it would no longer accept monies used for USAID projects in Gaza and the West Bank.

USAID ceased operating in the territories on Jan. 31, the deadline set in ATCA. Members of Congress expressed concern over this abrupt withdrawal, which left behind uncompleted projects that could not continue after funds were cut off. They were also concerned about President Donald Trump’s administration’s decision last year to freeze U.S. contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

“In my judgement, this is a decision that doesn’t make any sense. It reverses more than two decades of bipartisan support for humanitarian, economic, and security assistance, and I have long argued that such funding with stringent conditions plays a critical role in improving the lives of Palestinians,” said Representative Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Committee.

Reversing the USAID withdrawal would require Congress to pass legislation, likely by attaching relevant language to an unrelated bill, that clarifies how a foreign government becomes legally liable for lawsuits in U.S. courts in a manner that would exempt the Palestinian Authority from these provisions.

The cut off of UNWRA funds last year sparked speculation that the Trump administration is withdrawing aid that helps Palestinians to make the Palestinian Authority more likely to accept the conditions of a peace plan being worked out by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Kushner is on a tour of Arab nations this week to drum up support for his plan, but it is unclear when it may be made fully public.

When asked if he was consulted on the development of the plan, Green did not mention holding any meetings with Kushner, but said he met with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for Middle East peace, “some time ago.”

Green said he would provide a briefing to members of Congress about the ramifications of cutting off U.S. assistance to the Palestinians and said that “we are hopeful, in particular, for a long-term solution that allows us to continue doing what we think is important work.”

USAID transformation

At the same hearing, the USAID administrator touched on a number of the agency’s other challenges and priorities, including proposed internal USAID changes, which he said he prefers to refer to as “transformation” rather than reorganization. While the structural changes are the most visible, it is the implementation of new USAID policies that are going to make a large difference, he said.

USAID looks for congressional support for reorganization plans

USAID leaders testify on Capitol Hill as lawmakers consider whether to grant approval to a series of reorganization proposals.

“In many ways, it’s the … ‘software’ of our changes — private sector engagement, procurement reform — [that] will, I think, have the longest lasting changes,” Green said. “The idea is that when we’re done with all this, we will have an agency that is more field-focused than ever before and is more nimble than ever before.”

Green said that career USAID employees are driving the process because it should not be political or partisan.

“It’s a matter of taking the best ideas that we can find from this administration and past administrations and taking the opportunity of the mandate of a redesign to try to bring them to pass in consultation with all of you,” Green said.

USAID is in the implementation phase of the transformation, the administrator said. The change that is furthest along is the creation of a new Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance that will combine the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for Peace.

“Our commitment to you is to be transparent each step of the way, so that you can see how we’re doing it, doing it with full consultation, because we want this to be sustainable and we want it to last,” Green told the committee. “We’ve provided a timeline to you that shows when and how we plan to take each of the steps along the way.”

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.