USAID and State: On Marrying Bears and Frogs

USAID and State: On Marrying Bears and Frogs
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The debate continues to rage in Washington, D.C. over how to integrate the U.S. Agency for International Development into the Department of State.  It’s the wrong debate—again—but for now, it has captured the city’s imagination.    

Both financial and ideological considerations drive the discussion.  After the last eight years, with the national debt nearly doubled to twenty trillion dollars, it is clear to most that the nation cannot simply carry on like we are Greece.  Beyond that is a sense that a lot of foreign aid money is going down a rat hole, illuminating the current national schism between globalists and nationalists. 


If the debate is not on the Pentagon’s radar screen, it should be.  That’s because how it gets resolved could profoundly affect how it strategizes and operationalizes three kinds of irregular warfare—counterinsurgency (COIN), foreign internal defense (FID), and stability operations.  In spite of USAID’s limitations in the war zone—greatly exacerbated by the effective abdication of the agency’s national security responsibilities under the Rajiv Shah Administration (2010-2015)—USAID still brings important capabilities to the fight that no other U.S. agency can. 

Strategically, USAID brings expertise that is critical to long-term economic stabilization. This includes economic governance, macroeconomic policy reform, trade and investment, sector and business development, and construction of economic infrastructure.  Operationally, it brings decades of experience in FID, COIN, and short-, medium- and long-term stability operations.  Tactically, it brings stabilization expertise through its Office of Transition Initiatives.  In addition, USAID brings world class humanitarian and disaster response capabilities to the fight.    


The USAID-State integration debate has churned for at least thirty years, but it has never been consummated because the two organizations have wildly discordant cultures, missions, and modus operandi.  The work of both agencies is focused overseas, and both are deeply invested in globalization.  Beyond that, they are as different as bears and frogs. 

USAID is an operational agency.  It is largely staffed by sector development professionals, who execute the agency’s mandate through—literally—thousands of contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements.  Most of these projects have a lifespan of two to five years.  Life at USAID consists largely of programming, designing, contracting, executing, monitoring, troubleshooting, and evaluating those projects.  USAID’s strategic horizon in most countries is five to thirty years.  Its 2016 budget request was about $23 billion.     

The Department of State, conversely, is not an operations agency; it has a political and diplomatic mission.  It mostly operates face to face with its clients and counterparts, and it recruits for those with exceptional language, interpersonal and cultural skills.  State’s strategic horizon is usually the next election.  Its 2016 budget request was about $13.0 billion.

Whether it is because of or in spite of their fundamental differences, USAID and State work fairly well together.  Their integration, however, could hamstring the attainment of both U.S. diplomatic and U.S. overseas development objectives.  It would greatly diffuse State’s core mission, hugely complicate USAID planning and operations, and reduce the effectiveness of both.  The result would likely be akin to what happened when the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) was broken up in 1999. 


We have been to this rodeo before.  In 1997, with a view towards ending “bureaucracies originally designed for the Cold War,” the Clinton White House proposed integrating USAID, USIA, and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) into State as part of a blueprint for reinventing government.  ACDA, a small research, advisory, and negotiations agency, was a good fit for State and gave in willingly

USAID did not.  It fought back tooth and nail and ultimately survived as an ”independent” agency.  However, it was subordinated to State for both budget and policy, and relegated to reporting up through the Secretary of State.  It still chafes at that status today, periodically arguing—usually when administrations change—for its own seat in the Cabinet. 

USIA resisted integration but was dissolved in October 1999.  Its exchange and non-broadcasting functions went to State, while its main broadcast units—Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia—were spun off as the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors

The dissolution of USIA did not end happily for the country.  Problems at State included smothered innovation and the atrophy of specialized communications skills.  Most significant, however, was the loss of a robust U.S. counter-messaging capability.  This became increasingly apparent as the Islamic State metastasized, and the need for an aggressive information warfare capability lurched onto the national security radar screen. 

Created by executive order in 2010 to fill this gap, State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications did not prove up to the job.  In 2016 it was re-invented as the Global Engagement Center, a new ‘interagency coordination entity housed at State.’ On that, the jury is still out.


The USAID-State funding and mission problem is not intractable, but integrating the two organizations is the wrong way to go about it.  If the new administration really wants to cut foreign assistance, and focus the agencies—especially USAID—on national priorities, it should do it this way: 

First, keep USAID “independent,” but reporting up through the Secretary of State. 

Second, define USAID’s core mission as health, education, economics, infrastructure, governance, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.  Period.  Strictly adhere to it, and aggressively target non-core functions for elimination.

Third, repudiate USAID’s 2015 manifesto on non-cooperation with DoD, and replace it with a policy that makes development in irregular warfare a top USAID priority.    

Fourth, work with Congress to eliminate non-core earmarks.  This will be hard, given the predilection of our elected representatives to paying off special interest groups with taxpayer funding of their overseas gender, LGBT, and environmental agendas.  

Fifth, focus development assistance in countries where we have truly compelling U.S. national security or economic interests.  The bulk of USAID tax money goes to largesse, and the biggest savings by far will be in this area.         

Sixth, cut both staff and program costs by relying more on grants to NGOs and the United Nations for health, education and humanitarian programs.  USAID should also rely more on the multilateral development banks to execute strategic infrastructure and structural economics programs, but at the same time strengthen agency capabilities in engineering and economics.   

Finally, cut administrative and personnel costs.  Start with Washington, and cut field operations last.  Retain personnel with core competencies, and cut from the rolls of those without.     


How this debate plays out is important—not least to DoD, since it could have a major impact on how the Pentagon approaches FID, COIN and stability operations.  But the real debate should not be over whether to cut and how to integrate USAID and State.  It should be just the reverse—how to cut and whether to integrate.  

Cutting them needs to be done in a way that doesn’t hamstring their core missions, and that gets USAID back to professionally leading the development part of the national security framework.  Integration, conversely, is trying to fix something that isn’t broken.  The best way to avoid a bad divorce is not to get married in the first place—especially when the candidates are bears and frogs. 

 Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  He worked 29 years for the U.S. Agency for International Development (1983-2012), boots on the ground in 49 countries at both war and peace.  The opinions in this article are his alone.

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