USAID exploring food aid, disaster assistance merger for Trump reorganization

Food distribution by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Food Program in Pakistan. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC-ND

The United States Agency for International Development is exploring a merger of its disaster assistance and food assistance offices, to create a combined entity that would oversee the agency’s roughly $4 billion humanitarian operations, Devex has learned.

Leaders of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance have discussed including the merger proposal, which has not been finalized but has been related to staff, as part of their bureau’s contribution to the restructuring plan the Trump administration is requiring federal agencies to submit by June 30, according to a source briefed on the proposal, who spoke anonymously to relate internal discussions.

Merging the two offices, which often operate in the same crisis contexts, is an idea that has been floating around USAID for at least a year. In 2016, during the Obama administration, the agency hired the consulting firm McKinsey to conduct a study of what a potential merger might look like and what its implications would be.

Jeremy Konyndyk, now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, directed USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at that time.

“It was starting out from a recognition that using food [versus] non-food as an organizing principle for humanitarian assistance within USAID didn’t make a lot of sense,” Konyndyk said.

The OFDA leads the U.S. government’s interagency response efforts for complex disasters. Past examples have included the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, the Nepal earthquake, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The Office of Food for Peace was created in 1948 and engages in development and emergency relief to improve food security and provide food assistance during and after disasters.

Konyndyk explained that USAID deals with an overlapping set of challenges in responding to complex emergencies. Programs focused on livelihoods, water and sanitation, health, food assistance and other kinds of support must intersect and mutually reinforce each other.

“Having two distinct entities running humanitarian assistance, whose missions often bumped into each other, didn’t seem optimal,” he said.

Under current budget levels, merging the two offices could create an entity within USAID that oversees close to $4 billion in disaster and food assistance programming, making it larger than all of the agency’s existing bureaus, other than global health.

“If they were to be merged, they would need to be elevated too,”

— Jeremy Konyndyk, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development

Still undetermined is whether the proposal would suggest that OFDA and FFP split off from the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where they are currently housed, to become a separate bureau focused on humanitarian assistance.

Konyndyk said that if the new entity were not detached, it could lack leadership, oversight and the “support structure” necessary to manage its large budget and complex mandate. “If they were to be merged, they would need to be elevated too,” he said.

Elevating the offices to a combined humanitarian bureau could have the added benefit of giving the U.S. government a stronger voice in global humanitarian policy circles, Konyndyk added.

On April 12, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued the “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.” This requires all federal agencies to submit a plan to the OMB to “maximize the performance of government workers” and “modernize and streamline their operations.” Within that process, each of USAID’s bureaus is proposing reforms and consolidations that might contribute to those goals.

This “comprehensive reorganization” will be reflected in the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, according to the White House.

“We have begun a consultative process to engage our entire workforce, which will significantly inform the broader reorganization proposal,” a USAID spokesperson told Devex, adding that USAID routinely looks at ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Konyndyk suggested that if USAID is going to undertake this consolidation, it would make sense to do so before the assistant administrators who will lead the bureau under the Trump administration are in place, since their scope of work could change significantly in a shakeup.

The former disaster chief was skeptical — based on findings from the earlier McKinsey study — that a merger of the two offices would result in major cost savings. He also cautioned against pursuing the consolidation for the purposes of staff reduction.

“You wouldn’t want to go making significant cuts to the staffing level, because basically then you’re in effect ensuring less oversight to a comparable amount of money,” Konyndyk said.

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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.