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Opinion: USAID needs more autonomy

After 16 months of new administration, still no accountability for the $20 billion of development money the US spends yearly.

Filipino students reach out for U.S. Embassy stickers in Maimbung town in Jolo province, southern Philippines, Jan. 25, 2007. Sixteen months into a new administration, and still no one is in charge of U.S. development strategy and programs, including the $20 billion a year the U.S. spends on development aid. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — In insider Washington there is a battle going on over who will control U.S. global development strategy. The gossip is that it is a White House-State Department fight compounded by a low-level struggle inside State between the secretary’s staff and the old development guard at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In reality, the president, the secretary of state and the head of USAID all want the same thing: stronger development tools to fight poverty and promote prosperity to create a better, safer America and world. Key members of Congress stand ready to offer support. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been arguing for stronger development and diplomatic programs to complement U.S. defense efforts.

But after 16 months of a new administration, taxpayers and concerned citizens are still wondering who is in charge of U.S. development strategy and programs, including the $20 billion a year the U.S. spends on development aid. Below the president himself, whom can we hold accountable for an effective strategy and good programs?

The struggles over who is in charge of what and the resulting delay of the release of the White House’s first ever Presidential Study Directive on U.S. Global Development Policy are having unfortunate consequences for our foreign policy goals — from Pakistan to Haiti to our climate policy — as well as our partners in poor countries and our image abroad.

Word is that a draft of the presidential study directive defines a strategy for global development covering not just aid, but trade, migration, climate change and more; and proposes that a senior development official should have a distinct voice at the foreign policy table, preferably with a seat on the National Security Council alongside defense and diplomacy. That is good.

But what about who will be in charge and accountable to Congress, the president and the American people? We hope it will be head of USAID, Raj Shah, and that alongside the presidential study directive, the complementary review managed in the State Department will assign to him sufficient autonomy to do the job well.

Why the head of USAID? Why does greater autonomy for USAID matter? While our three main tools of foreign policy — development, diplomacy and defense — should support one another, they have different means for achieving complementary but distinct ends. First, there are trade-offs between more immediate political decisions (often in the realm of defense and diplomacy) and the longer-term horizons and endurance required to reap the benefits of development investments.