The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2021
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2021 53 AFSA NEWS Refine, But Don’t Re-define, Development As I write this column, it is the Monday after the weekend when most media outlets called the presiden- tial election—exciting times. In his Nov. 7 speech, former Vice President (now President-elect) Joe Biden called on Americans to come together “to marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.” What a fantastic call to action, one that already motivates us as USAID Foreign Service officers. We are seeing both domestically and in our partner countries the danger when science is discounted. I am hopeful that as a new administration and USAID Administrator come on board, they will remember that development—whether economic, health, politi- cal, environmental, gender, social, cultural or otherwise— is a science. And that they will first and foremost listen to career FSOs and other agency colleagues about what that science is saying. I am also hopeful that USAID’s rhetorical desig- nation as the U.S. Govern- ment’s “lead” development agency will become a more realistic moniker. Defining development, and USAID’s role in it, is hard. The topic is broad, and our status within the inter- agency pantheon is derived from factors most often beyond the ken of mere career mortals—Congress’ interests, global crises, the Secretary’s attentiveness, the Administrator’s vision and network, advocacy groups’ voices, etc. To boot, our beloved agency suffers from some- thing akin to bureaucratic ageism; America is not known for respecting its elderly, and so too with USAID (which recently celebrated its 59th anniver- sary!). Instead of building on the proven experience of the agency, many admin- istrations have opted for something new, shiny and headline-grabbing. When the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was launched in 2003, USAID got only a piece of respon- sibility. The Millennium Chal- lenge Account—at its heart an innovative foreign assis- tance allocation model—was established as a stand-alone institution in the form of the Millennium Challenge Cor- poration rather than being incorporated into USAID. Other interagency partners, such as State and the Department of Defense, have progressively encroached into the foreign assistance realm. Instead of building on USAID’s innovative Devel- opment Credit Authority financing instrument, the administration ripped out the DCA and related staff and joined them with the U.S. Overseas Private Invest- ment Corporation to create the Development Finance Corporation. And most recently, with COVID, USAID has been sidelined from several key task forces and meetings. There may be good political reasons for these moves, but the contin- ued fragmentation of U.S. foreign assistance—and the related lack of efficiencies, policy coherence and clear messaging—has been docu- mented for decades. As the transition advances, we will see a flood of punditry and prose on foreign assistance reform and reinvigorating develop- ment along with calls for innovation. The U.S. govern- ment apparatus will move into policymaking mode, with a new National Security Strategy, Joint Strategic Plan, Policy Framework and commensurate mission and vision statements. Don’t get me wrong— these are important parts of a functioning democracy and bureaucracy. USAID is always thinking about how to improve. New (and recy- cled) ideas and approaches can help us advance our development goals. But at 59 years young, USAID knows a thing or two about the science, practice and discipline of develop- ment. And our career FSOs, seasoned in the field, know their tradecraft. I am hopeful our incoming colleagues and leaders will recognize and respect this experience as USAID enters its seventh decade. n USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | (202) 712-5267 I am hopeful that as a new administration and USAID Administrator come on board, they will remember that development— whether economic, health, political, environmental, gender, social, cultural or otherwise— is a science.