Patrick Leahy and Congress get the aid agency they deserve?

Like many government bureaucracies, USAID suffers from a culture of arrogance; that it knows best.  Too often, USAID seems more comfortable dealing with the elites of foreign countries, than the people who have no voice.

There is a disturbing detachment between some USAID employees at Missions overseas who spend much of their time in comfortable offices behind imposing security barriers, living in relative high style – and the impoverished people they are there to help.

I have nothing against suitable working and living conditions – we provide the funds for that.  But it concerns me the way USAID has become something of an ivory tower – distant from the trenches, writing big checks for big contractors and high-priced consultants, and churning out self-serving reports filled with bureaucratic jargon.

That’s Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, dressing down USAID on its budget request.

While I agree with the sentiment, Leahy forgets that, when you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers still pointing back at you.

Yesterday I relayed the advice of sage economists to an African finance minister. We hashed out a plan they could bring to the donors, one wiser for the mistakes of the past.

“Clearly,” one concluded, “there’s no way we can work with USAID on this.” Heads nodded around the table. “We’re simply going to have to rely on DFID, the EU, and the World Bank.”

The US would just do whatever it felt it should do, good or bad for the country.

I was astonished: the US aid agency is so far gone that the Finance Minister of one of the smallest and poorest countries on the planet feels that the largest and wealthiest power in world history bears no relevance to the most sensible development plan he can muster.

Back to the Senate hearing. In his informal comments and questions, Leahy apparently wondered whether it would be simpler to just wind down USAID and start over again. I actually found myself sympathetic to his view.

The problem, however, might not be with USAID. USAID springs from Congress, a Congress that uses its charity as an instrument of foreign policy, has little belief in country ownership, and no real stake in actual development. Congress just might be getting the aid agency it deserves.

I don’t have the solution to this problem. I can barely organize my sock drawer. But we live in a world where the poorest government can safely say the US is irrelevant to its development strategy, and a leading member of the Senate can speculate in all seriousness that the main US aid agency should be wound up. This should deeply alarm us.