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Change On The Horizon For USAID?

The argument within the United States over the militarization of aid could potentially witness a dramatic shift in the coming weeks. The discussion has been refocused, from the extent to which military personnel should interact with and carry out traditional civilian roles within international aid operations, to whether or not there should even be a civilian presence in US government led international aid operations.

The new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican from Florida) says that cutting the State Department and foreign aid (USAID) budgets will be at the top of her agenda as chairwoman. Yesterday, before President Obama’s State of the Union, the Republicans in the House succeeded in passing a bill (256 to 165) which would cut government spending in 2011 to 2008 levels “or less” for all non-security discretionary spending. This comes on the heels of the Republican Study Committee’s January 20 proposal to essentially eliminate USAID by doing away with its budget. The Committee’s Chair, Representative Jim Jordan (Republican from Ohio) reports that this move could save U.S. taxpayers as much as USD1.39 billion annually. While there is little hope that this measure would pass, as the Democrats still hold control in the Senate, it certainly sends a strong message concerning both the size of deficit, but also many peoples’ feelings about the effectiveness of USAID.

Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, immediately countered that eliminating USAID and other government-led civilian efforts in post-conflict arenas would actually pose a national security risk. Shah asserted that USAID is playing a vital role in US national security with its efforts not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and even Central America.  Shah also highlighted prominent political/military figures including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ISAF Commander General David Petraeus, who support USAID’s role in carrying out foreign aid operations. The House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman is also quoted saying, “The message from our military leadership, this Congress and even from former President Bush is clear:  US civilian agencies must be fully resourced to prosecute the fight against terror effectively. A cut to the budget harms US national security and puts American lives at risk.”

This controversy over the future of USAID comes just as those within the organization were unveiling reforms intended to increase USAID’s effectiveness in the field. On January 19 Shah announced plans to put in place several new procurement initiatives, primarily aimed at increasing monitoring and evaluation of USAID field operations as well as provide greater accountability for its primary implementing partners. One major component of the reform is USAID’s proposed new evaluation process which according to Shah, “Will be unbiased, requiring that evaluation teams be led by outside experts and that no implementing partner be solely responsible for evaluating its own activities,” and further, “we will be transparent, registering all evaluations and disclosing findings as widely as possible, with standard summaries available on the website in a searchable form.”

Interestingly enough, as the US House of Representatives pushes for the elimination of USAID, and thus total militarization of aid, Shah –and other high ranking USAID officials– are simultaneously charting a course for more-or-less greater “militarization” of USAID from within. As part of his reform efforts, Shah announced plans next month to unveil a new USAID policy on combating violent extremism and engaging in counterinsurgency, tasks typically carried out by military personnel. Additionally, USAID recently appointed Craig Mullaney as a senior policy advisor for USAID’s AfPak Task Force. Mullaney comes with considerable experience and extensive knowledge of the region, having served as an Army Captain and led an infantry rifle platoon along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mullaney intends to apply his military experience toward his new development role, looking for points of cooperation and collaboration between the defense and development community. As he stated, “Part of my role is helping the defense community understand better where USAID has comparative advantages and how cooperation can enable effects greater than the sum of parts.”

Regardless of where you stand, this recent standoff has sparked interesting discussions and continues to force challenging questions. Is international development directly linked to our national security strategy and interests (the reference to “non-security” related spending cuts related to the elimination of USAID’s budget certainly begs this question)? If this is the case, that development is linked to national security interests, what does this say about the militarization of aid? And, who then is most qualified to deliver, military personnel or civilian? Any conversation that helps to clarify the comparative advantages of both military and civilian led operations in post-conflict development, and helps to make each more effective in achieving their mission, is one worth having.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Morgan Ashenfelter, Peace Dividend Trust. Peace Dividend Trust said: Latest blog post: Amid US budget cuts, the further militarization of #USAID #internationaldevelopment […]

  2. Dr. K says:

    May i take this opportunity to express my organization’s heartfelt support for any “reform” and “change” planned and implemented at USAID, as well as at other funding agencies of a mythical country south of Canada. Over the course of many years HRI has perfected just the right mix of waffle, conspicuous play with logos and “informal communication” to enjoy a pretty symbiotic relationship with the mentioned institutions, facilitated also by our artful exploitation of the obvious bad blood between the various agencies, poorly masked by ridiculously named coordination mechanisms, staffed by increasing number of clueless victims of Parkinson’s law*, militarized or not.

    This reality suits us just fine of course, and i personally love the cyclical talk of “change” and “reform” that always triggers just the right amount of top-town knee-jerking through the over-bloated structures, to help us “reset” and “re-strategize” – useful euphemisms for blaming outside forces and asking for more money.

    Now, if USAID would fire half of the incompetent, micro-managing bureaucrats they have “in the field”, simplify award processes, change their anal, unpractical budgeting requirements and define “indicators” in terms of actual impact and expect decrease cost/ impact over time, now then we would be fucked.

    But i’m not worried. That won’t happen anytime soon.

    *Nathan the intern says we need a “reference” here: Parkinson’s Law – “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, or “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource”.

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