United States Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah. Photo by: USAID

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, other U.S. government officials and members of the development community have all talked about bringing back the glory days of the U.S. Agency for International Development. But two years into the Obama administration and the agency is still understaffed and unprepared for the challenges ahead.

Of the 12 key management posts at the agency, only one has been filled so far, according to the USAID staffer tracker created by the Center for Global Development. Rajiv Shah was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Dec. 24, 2009 and was sworn in as administrator Jan. 7, 2010.

“USAID cannot be the premiere development agency everyone envisions without appointed and confirmed leaders at the helm of its regional and functional bureaus. Nor can it elevate development across the U.S. government without a full cadre of assistant administrators to inform major development policy reviews taking place right now and congressional efforts to rewrite foreign assistance legislation,” Sarah Jane Staats writes in a blog for CGDEV.

The vacancies at USAID may have an effect on the ongoing Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review jointly-led by USAID and the Department of State.

In an interview with Devex, Staats said one major concern regarding the review is that “you don’t have the same level of caliber of officers from the both sides.” The State Department has Senate-confirmed staff while USAID’s positions are handled by officers-in-charge, she explained.

The nomination and confirmation process does appear to be moving.

Nisha Desai Biswal, nominee for assistant administrator for Asia, and Mark Feierstein, nominee for the same post for Latin America and the Caribbean, both advanced to full Senate floor voting on August 4 and are set to appear before the Senate on Sept. 13, when it returns from its current recess. Biswal and Feierstein may be called to testify before other Senate committees that day. The date for the confirmation vote will be determined by the Senate majority and minority leaders.

Staats said they had hoped Biswal and Feierstein would be confirmed before the Senate went into recess Aug. 12 and were disappointed when this did not happen. But they remain optimistic that the two will be confirmed soon, she adds.

Meanwhile, Obama has forwarded two more names to the Senate. Donald Steinberg and Nancy Lindborg’s nominations as deputy administrator and assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance, respectively, have been forwarded to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to Library of Congress records. There is no schedule yet on when their nominations will be tackled.

Staats said it is difficult to pinpoint why it’s taking so long for USAID’s top level positions to be filled up.

“Who’s to blame? Is [it] Shah’s attention on Haiti and the interagency efforts? Are good candidates worried about USAID’s future and turning jobs down? Is State delaying or impeding the process? Is the White House vetting process impossible? I suspect it’s a combination of all of these, but it certainly calls into question the priority the administration places on development,” she writes in her blog entry.

The upcoming mid-term congressional elections in the U.S. may affect the confirmation process, Staats noted, particularly on the scheduling of hearings since Congress would once again go on recess to allow legislators to campaign in their districts.

About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.