USAID will be 'irrelevant' if it doesn't engage on China, says former deputy

Bonnie Glick, former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: U.S. Agency for International Development / CC BY-NC

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Bonnie Glick, former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, wants to make sure President-elect Joe Biden’s team has a clear picture of the agency’s successes and challenges — even if she is not officially designated to share them.

Glick, currently a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was fired by the White House last month after refusing to resign.

In March, the White House passed over Glick and chose John Barsa, head of the USAID Latin America bureau, to serve as acting administrator after USAID chief Mark Green stepped down. Her abrupt dismissal eight months later allowed Barsa to assume her title and retain his leadership of the agency in the face of a legal limit on the length of his tenure.

“I am quite certain that neither President [Donald] Trump, who appointed me, nor the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which led my confirmation, was informed in advance of Barsa's unilateral move,” Glick told Devex.

While no longer working from inside USAID, Glick is still hoping to influence the transition to Biden’s administration, including by meeting with his team to share what she believes are achievements by this administration that the next one should consider embracing.

“If USAID people think that they can continue on with the mission of delivering assistance, happily blind to the existence and the threat emanating from China … then they really are blind.”

— Bonnie Glick, former deputy administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

First and foremost is to continue involving USAID in efforts to counter China.

“USAID wasn't traditionally viewed as a policy player and was really just the programmatic implementation arm” among federal agencies, said Glick, who worked for 12 years as a foreign service officer at the Department of State.

That changed during Green’s tenure as administrator, she said, when he spearheaded a broad agency strategy called “Clear Choice,” intended to denote that countries have a “clear choice” between the U.S. and China when they consider investment partnerships for infrastructure and other development initiatives.

A USAID political appointee named Kaush Arha has led these efforts, Glick said, including by establishing a Clear Choice Executive Council, which Glick co-chaired with Chris Milligan, counselor to USAID.

The council met every two weeks and required the head of every bureau and independent office at USAID to attend. Arha often arranged for representatives from other federal departments to join them in an unclassified discussion of what each was doing to counter China, which Glick likened to “our own little mini National Security Council.”

Glick, describing herself as “an old Cold Warrior,” said it is currently the case that every agency that is part of the U.S. “national security infrastructure” has “a counter-China adviser or directorate that reports directly to the head of the agency.” She said her recommendation to members of the Biden team is that they institutionalize this focus and use it as a recruiting tool for USAID to bring in people with experience relevant to countering China.

“If USAID people think that they can continue on with the mission of delivering assistance, happily blind to the existence and the threat emanating from China, which is a threat to the very countries we're trying to help, then they really are blind,” she said.

Glick added that she expects countering China will be one of the “primary imperatives” of the Biden administration’s foreign policy, and she said, “USAID will be written off as irrelevant if it doesn't engage.”

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In addition to bringing together U.S. government agencies, Glick said she was also involved in efforts to build coalitions among like-minded donor countries, including the United Kingdom, the European Union, Germany, and Japan, but also emerging donors such as India, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

“It follows the philosophy of burden-sharing that the Trump administration fosters. But it was really more with an eye toward: ‘This is what we're all already doing. Let's just do it in a coordinated way,’” Glick said.

“We're coordinating as donors to counter China because the Chinese get very nervous when they see that there's a coordinated approach and that we're building coalitions,” she added.

With regard to donor coordination, Glick added that she is also hopeful that the Abraham Accords peace agreement between Israel and the UAE will create new opportunities for cooperation between countries seeking peace and normalization, as well as development finance. She imagined that Israel and the UAE might co-finance development projects in other countries that are normalizing relations with Israel, such as Morocco and Sudan.

The administration’s emphasis on using development tools to counter China led to USAID’s involvement in policy areas that were not typically considered part of its purview. One of these was the agency’s growing emphasis on pushing countries to adopt 5G cellular networks and technologies that are not developed by China.

Glick said the Department of State has led efforts to convince higher-income countries to sign on to the so-called 5G Clean Network, while her role at USAID included doing the same with lower-income countries.

“People don't naturally think about 5G being a development issue, but it clearly is. The argument has been made and the argument has been accepted across the donor community,” she said.

USAID has faced its own challenges with regard to telecommunications. In August, a congressional mandate prohibiting U.S. agencies and contractors from using Chinese networks and equipment was included in the National Defense Authorization Act. It sent the agency and many of its implementing partners into a panic, as numerous USAID country missions and project staffers came to realize they lacked alternatives to Chinese networks in the places where they worked.

“We have to do better than we did on the ventilators and the shipment of ventilators around the world. It has to be done in a more coherent way.”

— Bonnie Glick, former deputy administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

An ‘enormous undertaking’

On broader questions of digital infrastructure and strategy, Glick said the Biden administration will inherit a USAID workforce that is still heavily reliant on working remotely — and continued questions about what this means for the agency’s foreign service nationals, located within the countries where it funds projects.

“If your managers are operating from the United States, does that imply an increased level of responsibility? How is that reflected in your work requirements, your job categorization?” she said.

The incoming team will also face challenges related to deploying personnel and their families at what remains a very uncertain period of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will be tasked with the “enormous undertaking” of coordinating a global vaccine rollout, Glick said.

“We have to do better than we did on the ventilators and the shipment of ventilators around the world. It has to be done in a more coherent way,” she said.

The White House has received criticism for shipping ventilators to countries that did not want or need them, with no clear explanation or analysis of how those decisions are made.

Glick noted that many of the people on Biden’s transition team for development agencies served during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

“One of the things for them to understand and recognize is the world is actually a really different place from when they were in the administration,” she said.

USAID’s transformation under Green, the former administrator, was meant to reflect that, including by attempting to alleviate some of the “clumsiness” that existed in the agency’s approach to shifting from humanitarian relief, to stabilization, to development, Glick said.

The creation of a new leadership position — the associate administrator for relief, response, and resilience — was aimed at elevating a set of issues that were increasingly “eating up budget” to the agency’s front office, she added.

Glick hoped Biden’s team would consider retaining the political appointee who is currently in that position, Jenny McGee, to help transition that role to whomever the next administration chooses as its nominee.

“Otherwise, it will be rudderless for likely over a year, and it's important that it not be rudderless,” Glick said.

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.