Keeping USAID: why the US shouldn’t cut off its nose

28 April 2017 David Alpher Keeping USAID: why the US shouldn’t cut off its nose

News is filtering out that the Trump administration plans not only to slash foreign aid, but also dismantle USAID, incorporating its component parts into the Department of State. David Alpher explains why the US should keep on delivering aid through a dedicated agency.

Suits vs. Birkenstocks

Addressing the most mundane things first, the organizational cultures and missions of the two Departments are simply different – often joked about (not always inaccurately) as “suits vs. Birkenstocks.” Differences like this caused a great deal of friction when USAID was first brought into the State Department’s orbit in 2006. The suggestion that the State Department will now fully incorporate USAID’s dismantled components could be far worse. Secretary of State Tillerson—like his boss President Trump—comes out of the business world, so this should be familiar to them both as the kind of mismatched merger that rarely produces anything like effectiveness or efficiency.  

More deeply, there’s no such thing as perfect altruism in taxpayer-funded budgets; there’s always an aspect of self-interest in foreign assistance. Donors being open and transparent about that is a good thing—it improves relationships with communities they work with around the world, and builds trust by removing an obvious untruth. But there’s a lot of road between openly recognizing what America gains from giving aid and making America’s aid primarily about its self-interest. This is exactly what dismantling USAID would do.

The State Department focuses on the political promotion of US interests overseas—USAID, on helping the world’s most vulnerable people. To be effective, both should be allowed to pursue their mandates independently. Dismantling USAID’s mandate sends a discomfiting message about where American priorities lie. This could harm America’s standing and undermine its security—already jeopardized by America’s over-reliance on short-term military tools.

Moving from a focus on aid as a ‘win-win’ to a system wholly centered on “America first” would upend decades of lessons about what’s effective and what isn’t. Dismantling the Agency that demonstrates America’s solidarity with victims of poverty, dictatorship and injustice all over the world will undermine, not advance, America’s interests.

USAID is an indispensable tool for addressing conflict

Specific proposed cuts to USAID are particularly worrying—more than half of the funding for the regional bureaus, for example, along with all funding for flexible responses to emerging conflict and disasters. Investing solely in country programs will prevent planners and operational responders from effectively dealing with transnational challenges: epidemics, criminal and armed groups, illicit weapons and dirty cash have no respect for sovereign borders. If anything, regional offices need greater resources to respond.

In recent years, the world has lifted millions of people out of poverty, but the most severe poverty has proven extremely hard to reduce. Researchers agree that within a few years, the bulk of theworld’s poorest will be living in conflict-affected and fragile countries.  

Prosperity doesn’t guarantee peace—but conflict will always undermine efforts to tackle extreme poverty, and can spill across borders to engulf entire regions in its wake. USAID houses some of America’s best tools for addressing the problems that lead to and result from conflict. If dismantling USAID means dumping these tools, it could cost lives, increase global insecurity and lay more intractable problems at the military’s door

Cutting aid is a false economy

Foreign assistance, across its wide spectrum of programs and efforts, is powerful and can be extremely effective—but it’s also fragile in the face of State-level policies that undermine progress faster than it can be built. These funds tend (especially in conflict-affected areas) to get implemented alongside national security policies that run entirely counter to them. Peacebuilding and CVE programs are located in the same area as the drone strikes and special operations raids that radicalize civilians faster than they kill terrorists. Democracy and governance assistance programs go into the same countries as support to the autocratic and repressive regimes that are closing down civil society space and cutting off access to justice.

At the end of the day, cutting foreign assistance has always been a symbolic rather than substantive move: President Trump’s proposed cuts and reorganization offer the US a false economy. In total, foreign assistance costs less than one percent of the total American budget. The portion of that spent on USAID-specific programming is roughly a quarter of that small amount. To save a few pennies, the US risks sacrificing all the political goodwill, trade and investment opportunities that it shares in when it promotes peace and prosperity abroad.

Saving pennies on aid while further inflating the already bloated US defense budget will only create more problems that can’t be solved with the military solutions America will be left with. Really putting America first should mean spending foreign assistance more effectively—and sometimes spending more, not less—as part of an overall foreign policy that focuses more coherently on achieving lasting peace.

“Dismantling the Agency that demonstrates America’s solidarity with victims of poverty, dictatorship and injustice all over the world will undermine, not advance, America’s interests.”

David Alpher