USAID is ready, but still waiting, for the Trump transition

The Ronald Reagan Building, which houses the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Lance Cheung / USDA / CC BY

The U.S. Agency for International Development is still waiting to hear from President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.

Agency leaders have made sure USAID is ready to change hands. Staff are prepared to fill in when political appointees resign, they’ve appointed a transition team, they’ve collected reams of briefing material on a “nifty iPad,” and they’ve instructed outgoing officials to write exit memos for their successors, said USAID’s Chief of Staff Michele Sumilas.

8 possible picks for Trump's USAID administrator

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump rode a wave of promises to shake up the Washington political establishment. Now he is tasked with appointing the agency and department leaders who will execute on that plan. Here are eight possible picks for the Trump administration’s USAID chief.

The only problem is, they still have no one to share this information with. It’s not yet clear who will make up Trump’s “landing team” — the handful of individuals who will consider what direction the agency should take in the next administration.

“I think we’re ready. We just need people to show up. And they will,” Sumilas said Tuesday at the Council for International Development Companies’ annual conference.

Officials expected the landing team would arrive last month, and that a bulk of the transition effort would be spent on in-person briefings with the incoming administration. By comparison, President Barack Obama announced his USAID agency review team in mid-November 2008. It was co-led by current USAID Administrator Gayle Smith and former Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams.

The two months between the election and inauguration are critical to a smooth transition between administrations. A large portion of USAID’s leadership — as with other agencies and departments — are political appointees, and when they resign sometime before inauguration day, so does their institutional knowledge. The lack of a Trump landing team at USAID has fed some speculation that the incoming president will not prioritize development programs — since he has not appeared to prioritize their transition so far.

Laying the groundwork

USAID has been working on the transition for over a year, Sumilas said.

Since foreign service officers rotate through international and domestic postings, the agency had to ensure it would have qualified personnel in Washington to step into leadership roles when Obama’s political appointees resign — which they are expected to do by inauguration day.

“We’ve ensured that there is a senior deputy assistant administrator in every single bureau who is prepared and ready to hit the ground running, whether that’s a foreign service officer or a civil servant,” Sumilas said.

USAID also set up a transition team of career — nonpolitical — staff to put together briefing papers from each of the agency’s regional and functional bureaus.

“There’s about a half a dozen corporate papers that we’ve developed that focus on key issues … and then there are papers that are bureau specific. All of that is ready on a very nifty iPad,” Sumilas said.

All of the political appointees who are leaving the agency have also been requested to write an exit memo for whoever arrives to fill their roles in the new administration. According to Sumilas, those memos will outline what the official tried to accomplish, what was successful, what wasn’t, and where future opportunities may lie.

The transition process

What happens now? 5 questions about US aid under Trump

Donald Trump's victory raises a lot of questions about what U.S. development cooperation will look like under the next administration. Here are five of them.

Before the election and when Hillary Clinton was expected to win, Wade Warren, assistant to the administrator, had laid out what he believed the transition process would look like.

Already, some of those expectations haven’t been met.

“We expect there to be five to 10 to 12 people who will come to the agency and work with us through November and December to learn more about what the agency does and begin to think about directions that they want to take the agency in,” he said at the Advisory Council on Voluntary Foreign Assistance Oct. 19 meeting.

Warren said at the same meeting that he had consulted with past landing teams, who told him that they had gotten most of their information from in-person briefings, more than background papers.

With November gone and December quickly disappearing, it’s not clear how much time will be left — or if the Trump team is planning — to do those in-person briefings with outgoing USAID officials, and there is little USAID’s leadership can do to influence the process.

Speculation about the future

As the agency and its partners wait for the Trump administration team to arrive, speculation about what they might have in store for USAID, and who they might tap to lead the agency, continues to build.

Speaking at the Council of International Development Companies’ annual conference on Dec. 6, Diana Ohlbaum, an independent consultant and U.S. development expert, predicted that the Trump administration will push a policy agenda to strip USAID of its independence and relocate development within other departments.

“My assumption is that the Trump administration will move to eliminate USAID and merge it into the State Department,” Ohlbaum said.

Such a proposal would not be unprecedented. In the mid-1990s, with a Republican-controlled Congress, there was an effort to dismantle USAID and fold U.S. foreign assistance programs into the State Department. *Ohlbaum, who was working for Sen. Paul Sarbanes, was part of the successful effort to defend the agency against those plans.

Not everyone agrees the Trump administration will pursue anything that drastic. The agency enjoys more bipartisan support now than it did then, with key Republican and Democratic allies in Congress who have helped secure a relatively stable budget and independent management for the agency. Trump never explicitly attacked U.S. development programs during the campaign — even though his rival Hillary Clinton was closely associated with many of them.

Trump team’s silence so far, however, is doing little to ease concerns.

Update, Dec. 9, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify that Diana Ohlbaum was not working for Rep. Howard Berman in the 1990s. She was working for Sen Paul Sarbanes.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.