How the next administration can enhance US engagement in global development

US flag fluttering on the wind during sunset, flag raised on the cargo ship berthed in the port of Newark, NJ.
Editor's note:

This blog summarizes a new paper on how the administration and 117th Congress that will assume office in January 2021 can enhance the U.S. government’s ability to address global development.

Global challenges

In January 2021, U.S. policymakers will be faced with the most complex set of international crises since the end of World War II, creating imperatives to design and implement a coherent set of domestic and international policies to stem the still raging COVID-19, to “build back better” from the pandemic’s worldwide devastation on economic and human well-being, and to restore trust and confidence in America from four years of withdrawal from world leadership and denigration of international alliance and allies.

At the same time, they will confront a set of ongoing challenges that have only grown worse—climate change, permanent wars and instability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya; an Iran and North Korea with growing nuclear capability; state fragility; racial and social inequities that are causing human suffering and political instability, disinformation, and emboldened authoritarianism.

Backed by a strong defense capability and coherent domestic policies, the principal tools for dealing with these international challenges are diplomacy and development. Unfortunately, the key means for exercising these tools have suffered from neglect and disparagement: for the State Department, four years of disrespect of diplomacy and the career service, and at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), four years of proposed budget cuts and one year of political appointees with radical social/political views at odds with USAID development knowledge and culture. Fortunately, both agencies are staffed by dedicated, resilient professionals who will respond quickly to new leadership that will bring respect and who will rebuild based on the knowledge and experience of the career staff.

Diplomacy/development dissonance

But the difficulties confronting the two agencies, especially the relationship between them, precedes the recent abuse. The influence and effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy and development are hamstrung by long festering dissonance between the two. While at times individuals in the two agencies work well together, particularly in the field, they suffer from a lack of a clear understanding and respect for their respective expertise and roles. While USAID and its development programs benefit from input from State Department foreign policy knowledge, too often State Department officials and offices interfere with USAID’s ability to exercise its expertise and responsibility to determine development policy and programs.

The administration and Congress can choose between two paths in sorting through this dissonance—one aspirational, the other incremental.

Aspirational approach

The aspirational approach would involve, among other elements:

  • Consolidating all development programs, bilateral and multilateral, in a cabinet-level Department of Global Development.
  • Enacting a successor to the 60-year old Foreign Assistant Act.
  • Crafting a U.S. Global Development Strategy.
  • Designing a 21st century personnel system for USAID (and the State Department).

This aspirational approach would require broad recognition that addressing global 21st century challenges is essential to the prosperity and security of the United States and cannot be effectively addressed with the incoherent maze of 20th century instruments. But it should be undertaken only if there is a bipartisan/bicameral/executive branch accord that would best be determined in the early months of 2021 by a special task force of senior administration officials and members from the two authorization and two appropriations committees that reaches agreement to work together and shepherd the process.

Incremental approach

Short of this grand accord, the incremental approach would involve, among other actions outlined in a new paper:

  • Assigning cabinet rank to the administrator of USAID.
  • Designating USAID a member of the National Security Council.
  • Bringing the staffing of USAID to its fully appropriated level and building it further so the agency has sufficient staff to effectively manage its funding level, fulfill its interagency responsibilities, and maintain a “float” of staff engaged in training, professional development, and assignment to other agencies.
  • Provide USAID full authority (and thereby accountability) over the budgets it manages, allowing the Office of Foreign Assistance (F) and other State offices/bureaus to provide relevant foreign policy input into USAID policies and programs but ending their practice of unproductive, complicating interference in program management.
  • Draft a USAID/NSC-led government-wide global development policy.
  • Expand Goldwater/Nichols-type staff assignments between USAID, State Department, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Development Finance Corporation (DFC), Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), and other relevant agencies.
  • Rationalize the 653(a) process so as to shorten the time required to reconcile the administration’s international affairs budget request with the enacted appropriations bill, thereby allocating funds to agencies in a more timely fashion.

Effective international engagement

The new administration and Congress will have no end of urgent issues with which to contend. Along with various domestic matters, at the head of which are responding to COVID-19 and the growing inequality in the country, policymakers must secure American prosperity and security. That prosperity and security will not come from a fortress America but from an America fully engaged with allies and international organizations to address challenges to and opportunities to promote global peace and prosperity. It is only with effective tools of diplomacy and development, working in a supportive, unified manner, that the U.S. will maximize its international influence. And it is only through elevating and respecting the expertise and central role of the development side of the equation that both development and diplomacy will maximize their leverage and effectiveness.

Note For analysis of the comparable need for upgrading the State Department, see recent articles by Anne-Marie Slaughter and William Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield.