A guide for Secretary Tillerson: Let State focus on diplomacy, USAID be accountable for assistance

Rumors abound, most recently in an article today in Foreign Policy that, along with draconian cuts to foreign assistance, the administration is contemplating merging the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) into the Department of State.

This follows a March 13 White House executive order directing agencies within six months to submit a reorganization plan to improve “efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.” An April 21 memo from the Office of Management and Budget provided more specifics on the process for agencies developing plans to reduce civilian workforce and to restructure.

During his nomination hearing, Secretary of State Tillerson referenced a forthcoming State Department and USAID strategic review. There are various reports he is planning to establish an internal task force, or possibly a commission with external advisers, to recommend ways to reorganize both institutions.

Any foreign affairs restructuring must be undertaken carefully and strategically, guided by an understanding that development and diplomacy are distinct disciplines with distinct expertise and with distinct but interlocking objectives. Both are required to achieve our national interest. They need to inform and coordinate with the other, and each needs to be allowed to focus on its primary mandate.

Development involves country-level work, often at the local, grassroots level, with a range of governmental and non-governmental entities to achieve priority objectives. This is accomplished by designing and implementing strategies, policies, and programs to reduce global poverty and promote economic, social, and political progress. Diplomacy, on the other hand, is responsible for setting and implementing U.S. foreign policy. It focuses mainly on maintaining strong relations with the national governments and with international organizations.

Diplomacy requires the skills of policy analysis, negotiating, patience, and country expertise, while focusing on immediate impacts. Development requires expertise on societal change, sector workings, and program operations, while having more consideration for long-term effects. Put another way, the State Department recruits for policy and communications skills, while USAID recruits more for sector and management expertise.

Despite this clear distinction, confusion and tension persist over the respective roles of the two institutions. Their responsibilities have become muddled, particularly as recent administrations have asked diplomats to move beyond their core responsibility of diplomacy to programing billions of dollars of foreign assistance.

Respective roles of State and USAID

In countries where the U.S. has strong foreign policy and national security interests, the State Department and embassy have an active role in informing overall U.S. development policy toward that country.

As the principal development agency, USAID should be responsible for development strategy and policies, and program design and implementation. USAID coordinates closely with the State Department to ensure development assistance is in accordance with U.S. foreign policy objectives. Other U.S. government agencies—Millennium Challenge Corporation, President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, and Treasury—also make important contributions.

The State Department is responsible for U.S. foreign policy and, along with the Department of Defense, national security. In countries where the U.S. has strong foreign policy and national security interests, the State Department and embassy have an active role in informing overall U.S. development policy toward that country. However, actual implementation and oversight of foreign assistance is not a good use of the time and talent of diplomats.

By types of assistance, the division of labor is:

  • Development assistance: USAID should have prime responsibility for policy, strategy, design, and implementation; State helps ensure consistency with US foreign policy goals
  • Strategic assistance (Economic Support Funds – ESF) to frontline states: State decides what countries receive how much; USAID advises on which forms of assistance can be most effective and handles implementation.
  • Humanitarian assistance: USAID leads on disaster response and aiding internally displaced persons; State leads on assistance to refugees, mainly through contributions to U.N. organizations.
  • Security assistance: State is responsible for policy and implementation regarding non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, law enforcement, and trafficking in persons.
  • Military assistance: State determines which recipient countries to target and how much they should receive, with DOD carrying out implementation; DOD runs parallel military assistance program over which State has little influence.

The best diplomats stay informed of U.S. development efforts to ensure they are consistent with US foreign policy interests. They also use their high-level access to advance development objectives internationally and in dialogue with senior government leaders.

A simple example demonstrates the distinction in expertise and roles.

When I was at USAID, a well-meaning U.S. ambassador had the notion of the U.S. providing computers to high schools in the capital city and pressured the agency to do so. Without doubt, it would have been valuable to introduce modern technology to advance learning. The problem was the ambassador had not thought through the implementation: Was there adequate and consistent electricity, who would train the teachers, who would maintain the computers, what software was appropriate and available, could the computers be connected to the internet?  Without thinking through these very practical matters, the seemingly positive gesture could do more harm than good if the computers stood idle. In this instance, USAID’s advice prevailed.

The 2016 report of the USAID Office of the Inspector General, Competing Priorities Have Complicated USAID/Pakistan’s Efforts to Achieve Long-Term Development under EPPA provides another example. The title hints at the primary finding that State’s direction of the aid program prevented USAID’s thoughtful planning of how best to deploy assistance.

Both diplomacy and development are required to achieve our national interests.

The point is not that USAID is always right on how best to use assistance. There are many instances in which the use of assistance for more immediate foreign policy purposes takes primacy. The point is that USAID experts need to be listened to for their expertise and experience. Where development is paramount, development needs to be in the driver’s seat. Where foreign policy imperatives are overriding, diplomacy is the driver and USAID should have a voice on targeting and implementation.

On balance, the State-USAID relationship is one of collaboration. Both diplomacy and development are required to achieve our national interests. Diminishing the roles of either puts America at risk.  Whether we are seeking to build markets for U.S. goods abroad that create jobs at home, to provide life-saving assistance, or to stabilize communities after conflicts, diplomats and development professionals are on the front lines serving the national interest.

It is time for the Department of State to be allowed to focus on its core function of diplomacy and USAID to be held accountable in an open and transparent way for the management of development programs.