Chris Blattman

Patrick Leahy and Congress get the aid agency they deserve?

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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.

6 Responses

  1. Senator Leahy’s comments remind me of some of the sentiments expressed in the old “ugly American” book. That largely refers to the haughtyness of the US foreign service relative to sly cold war enemies but it is funny to me that we have returned to the same sort of criticisms of USAID again in congress that were being aired at that time.

  2. Most developed countries became rich without the aid workers of other rich countries helping them become such.

    I think there’s a reason for that, and I think that USAID is just operating under too many institutional constraints to be expected to be effective.

  3. Regardless of which agency or country is involved, catering to the elites in impoverished countries is a sensitive topic that has rarely been addressed, so thanks to Senator Leahy. It is disappointing after being raised with concepts of equal justice for all in the U.S., to see U.S. citizens abroad kowtowing to oligarchs and kleptocrats. There is even a certain attraction to elites who label themselves ‘royalty’ that I find so desperately sad. This behavior often leads to the granting of special privileges and first dibs on contracts, scholarships, and jobs to families of those elites, which further cements the status quo and stratifies the haves and have-nots further.

  4. Not sure I buy it that one of the “poorest countries on the planet” can’t find a way to work with USAID on a development program they crafted.

    That guy may have been trying to spin you. I find that a lot of Westerners fall for it too.

    It might be that your finance minister personally doesn’t want to work with AID because, let’s face it, he might be corrupt and doesn’t want to be held to certain standards or chafes at not being able to control the funds as much as he would like and therefore divert them. Your link to another post on “sage advice” from whom I presume is the same individual suggests as much, particularly since his first bit of sageness (not a word, I know) was for donorsTO NOT set “high standards for governing and disbursing public money.”


    Having worked alongside USAID for two years, having attended numerous USAID University trainings, and having spent two years living abroad and spending their money on development projects, I can tell you AID officers are well aware of the need for local consult and ownership of programs. I’ve never met one who wasn’t. USAID develops mission plans after extensive consultation with local groups, government and non-government. It could be that your finance minister just wants a check handed to him and doesn’t want to consult or it could be AID requires talking to more people than just the finance minister in that country. In fact, it surprises me that the design of this “most sensible development plan” is run out of the finance ministry. Usually the Ministry of Planning would be in the lead with suitable representation/consults from other line ministries . . . i.e., Health, Education, etc, or separate Memorandums of Understanding would be signed with individual ministries based on projects.

    That said, Leahy is right in some respects. I find many USG representatives abroad to be incredibly arrogant, but these tend to be FSOs from State and not USAID reps. I’m with State and he’s spot on when it comes to that one. Same with the security issue too . . . we’re hamstrung by these onerous requirements, but the fault is at the top executive levels in DoS and USAID and not with the reps on the ground who are adhering to policy and who would lose their jobs if they did otherwise..

    Most of the problem lies with Congress though. We are Congressionally-mandated to drop money on projects in ways that could be better spent elsewhere. We should focus on security and economic growth because that’s what matters if you really care about development, but we waste a ton of money on prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS because it’s a “sexier” form of assistance and has more US based support. That money would be better spent on security sector reform/development and helping to support the creation of business enabling environments, increasing trade and stimulating economic growth. But what the President and Congress wants, the President and Congress gets.

    Earmarking of funds by Congress is the main problem. One reason AID doesn’t live up to its potential is that politicians try to tie AID money to programs that benefit companies/constituents in their own states. The process of who wins contracts/grants from AID has become politicized and believe it or not, Senators and Representatives have lobbied AID officials to give particular firms contracts, and if their selectee isn’t chosen, then that Senator or Representative calls up someone from AID and complains about it, and then the contract is delayed since everything gets reviewed again. This wastes money, work hours, and time that could have been spent on implementation.

  5. I could not agree with this more – that USAID is a reflection in many ways of Congress and their rules. The people in USAID I think often do try to listen to people on the ground, do what makes sense, etc. but they are not the ones making policy and creating the environment in which they have to operate by law. Congress makes a lot of rules about aid, especially how we can use it and with whom in our foreign policy interests rather than country needs, and there is a limit to what you can do in that context.

    The sad part is that of U.S. government agencies, USAID is the best, not the worst, at listenting to country interests, being involved on the ground, etc. – and probably has the least influence. So you can only imagine what the State Department is like, and DOD.

  6. Having spent a lot of time working with grass-roots organizations in south Asia, I would add U.S. foreign service workers to Leahy’s complaint about “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 never seen Nepalis and Indians treated worse than by our embassy “representatives.” Even these countries’ native prejudices about caste and skin tone do not match the general dismissiveness and haughtiness demonstrated by tax-financed workers.

    In my experience, irrelevance and arrogance seem endemic to our country’s overseas work… at least as displayed by foreign service and USAID.

    It’s really difficult to tout the merits of democracy, education and other public goods when the “official” reps of your country spoil the ground ahead of you.

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