Opinion: USAID needs full leadership team now

WASHINGTON — More than a year-and-a-half after United States President Barack Obama was sworn into office, 12 management jobs at the U.S. Agency for International Development still require Senate confirmation.

To date, only one official — USAID Administrator Raj Shah — has been confirmed. While Shah has skilled and capable leaders in his front office and throughout the agency, several of whom have been doing yeoman’s work in acting positions, it is unconscionable that all remaining management seats remain unfilled 18 months into this administration. Shah cannot captain the USAID ship without a crew.

Obama’s campaign raised expectations that global development would be a national priority but it took a full 12 months before Shah was confirmed as head of the lead U.S. development agency.

How does this compare with past administrations? George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter all got their first USAID administrator out of the starting gate faster than Obama.

It has been eight months since Shah’s swearing in and an unprecedented number of management staff have been confirmed: zero. Just two nominees have had confirmation hearings and if they are confirmed this week, USAID might have new assistant administrators for Latin America and Asia before the Senate recess begins on Aug. 6.

That still leaves nine nominations, nine hearings and nine more confirmation votes before USAID will have a full management team in place.

Again, Shah’s front office has attracted high-level new hires that are working on restoring important USAID budget and policy capacities. But all the assistant administrators for the regional bureaus and functional areas like global health and management are missing in action. Even the acting assistant administrators have, in many cases, had to move on to new posts, having exceeded the allowable time in acting positions.

USAID cannot be the premier 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 — as Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have called for — 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.

Efforts to define the U.S. strategy for effectively spending $7.5 billion in development assistance in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also missing input and insight from confirmed (and politically empowered) USAID leaders.

And other important decisions like whether USAID will lead the Feed the Future initiative that aims to reduce global hunger and spur agricultural investments may very well depend on whether Shah has staff in place throughout the rest of the agency in order to take on a major new administration priority.

Who’s to blame? Is Shah’s attention on the response to the Haiti earthquake and other interagency efforts? Are good candidates worried about USAID’s future and turning jobs down? Is the state department delaying or impeding the process? Is the White House vetting process impossible?

It is likely a combination of all of these, but whatever the reason, it calls into question the priority the Obama administration places on development.

Will Shah have a full management team in place by the end of the year? It’s doubtful. According to the current congressional calendar, which is subject to change, there are fewer than 20 working days left before the November elections. Even if the administration announced all nine remaining positions immediately — and they should — there is a very slim chance USAID would have its team in place before November or even by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, today’s global challenges won’t wait for Washington.

Sarah Jane Staats is the Director of Policy Outreach at the Center for Global Development