A box of donated goods ready to be airlifted to those affected by flooding and landslides in Santa Maria Ostuma in El Salvador. It was under George Bush that the three D — Defense, Diplomacy and Development — doctrine of national power was first established, elevating the importance of development assistance. Photo by: 1st Lt. Jen Richard / U.S. Air Force / CC BY-NC 

Devex has done a service for the development community by focusing attention on administrators of the U.S. Agency for International Development from the agency’s founding up to the present. The series, USAID: A history of U.S. foreign aid, attempts to capture the complexity of international development and its place in American foreign policy. The greatest challenge in writing a series on such a broad subject is what to include and what to ignore. Understandably, space limitations meant the author, John Norris, could not include a comprehensive view of each administrator’s accomplishments, but too much of the series focuses on the superficial and overlooks some important issues.

At times, the series seems to describe USAID administrators as independent actors who performed their duties separate from the presidents who appointed them or their foreign policy when in fact they are an integral part of it. For example, the article does not mention the transformational change Richard Nixon brought to USAID, which dramatically shifted the programmatic focus of the agency to what it is today. Nixon teamed up with his old rival, Hubert Humphrey, to push through the “New Directions” legislation that moved USAID away from the megaprojects focus of President Kennedy and President Johnson, which sought to replicate the Tennessee Valley Authority around the world (the projects failed most of the time), toward the human needs school of development, which focused on health, education and rural development at the grass-roots level. It was Richard Nixon who created the functional, sector account structure in USAID, which drives much of the agency’s work today.

Not mentioned was the Reagan administration’s creation of the democracy and governance program which, according to an outside impact evaluation commissioned while I was administrator and conducted by Carnegie Mellon and Vanderbilt Universities, had a significant impact on building democratic governance around the world over two decades. Two of Brian Atwood’s most significant contributions, beyond saving the agency from being absorbed into the State Department, were doubling funding for these democracy programs, and creating the Office of Transition Initiatives, which bridged the gap between relief and development.

The article makes some historical errors of fact. For instance, the Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union multibillion-dollar aid program was created and funded by President George H.W. Bush, and not President Clinton, which the article in one place implies (though Clinton did continue the program).

Any objective assessment of President George W. Bush’s contribution to the U.S. aid program, which nearly tripled while he was president, would have to place him in the same category as Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy in terms of his transformational impact. It was under George Bush that the three D — Defense, Diplomacy and Development — doctrine of national power was first established, elevating the importance of development assistance. This doctrine has been continued by the Obama administration. While the article gives credit to President Bush for two of his largest aid initiatives — the HIV and AIDS program and the Millennium Challenge Corp. — and points out that neither was run out of USAID, President Bush proposed and funded 24 new initiatives. More than half the HIV and AIDS program was and continues to be managed out of USAID.

“Norris’ observation on who made the best USAID administrators missed the mark on one major skill: It was less what administrators knew about development when they started and more their personal commitment to the work.”


Bush orchestrated an increase in nonhumanitarian aid to Africa from $1.3 billion when he entered office to more than $5 billion when he left office, a $1.2 billion malaria initiative (which now stands cumulatively at $4.9 billion), the Doing-Business Reforms to accelerate economic reform and trade capacity building, which significantly increased nonoil exports from Africa to the U.S., and an increase in funding for education from $150 million in fiscal year 2000 to $800 million when Bush left office (which has since been substantially cut by the Obama administration). Twenty of the 24 Bush initiatives were and are managed by USAID.

We implemented more than a dozen aid initiatives (separate from what President Bush proposed) during my time in office. The three I am most proud of were the fragile states strategy, which created the Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management, the Office of Military Affairs to better coordinate with the Pentagon in conflict areas, and integrated conflict mitigation programming in country strategies. Second was the creation of the Global Development Alliance, which integrated public-private partnerships into the business systems of USAID. These alliances stood at $7 billion when I left USAID in January 2006. The GDA won special recognition by the Kennedy School of Government in 2005. The GDA initiative is the subject of an article I wrote for the Stanford Social Innovations Review titled “Public Private Partnerships Transform Aid.” We also created the development communications initiative, which included the USAID branding campaign, “From the American People,” to raise the visibility of its programs around the world.

Norris’ observation on who made the best USAID administrators missed the mark on one major skill: It was less what administrators knew about development when they started and more their personal commitment to the work. Peter MacPherson, one of the best USAID administrators, had both a deep commitment to development and highly developed political management skills in fighting the bureaucratic wars in Washington to protect the agency.

I would have liked to see the series discuss the future USAID agenda and how administrators can and should shape that agenda. What must be done to reform the Foreign Assistance Act and strengthen USAID’s position in the federal system?

The whole-of-government approach of the Obama administration has been a failure, and has weakened USAID’s leadership on development issues. Aid programs should be recentralized in USAID rather than spread out across the U.S. government. As of 2009, USAID no longer sits at meetings of the National Security Council: The State Department claimed it would represent the agency’s point of view. USAID’s independent role should be restored.

The Congressionally initiated legislation to strengthen USAID and make it more independent was stopped by the State Department in 2010, ending legislative efforts at aid reform. Secretary Kerry should lift the State Department’s opposition to the legislation. The much-heralded first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review under Secretary Clinton promised to move the HIV and AIDS program coordination office out of State to USAID where it always belonged. That has not happened.

In 2006, Secretary Rice reorganized the management of the foreign aid budget by increasing the authority of the USAID administrator who continued to control all USAID spending, but was also given control over all State Department aid spending as well (the administrator was dual-hatted as deputy secretary of state for foreign assistance). In early 2009, Secretary Clinton separated the two positions, thus weakening the USAID administrator who now controlled neither State’s nor USAID’s aid budget. The State Department has continued to set up competing aid programs in microfinance, transition and stabilization, and gender programs, among others. The administrator’s authority over the aid budget should be restored — which the QDDR promised to do, but has not — and State-run aid programs should be transferred to USAID.

There has been no comprehensive review to track how much of what the QDDR promised has actually been realized and, given that a second review is now underway, that might be in order. These are reforms virtually all USAID administrators, past and present, would agree on.

Click here to view our complete interactive series exploring the history of USAID, its administrators and US foreign aid.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Andrew Natsios

    Andrew Natsios served as USAID administrator from May 2001 to January 2006. He was also U.S. special envoy for Sudan from 2006 to 2007 and vice president of World Vision U.S. from 1993 to 1998. Natsios, who is currently executive professor and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at The Bush School of Government & Public Service at the Texas A&M University, has just written a soon-to-be-released book on foreign aid and international development.