Samantha Power’s Herculean task: Turning a screw with a rubber screwdriver

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President Biden’s proposed nomination of Samantha Power to head the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is yet another reassuring sign of the Biden-Harris administration’s intention to rebuild. Rebuild America’s international reputation, yes, but also America’s internal government machinery.

Though new to the field, Power is the right choice to lead America’s international aid and development efforts, not because she is an admired idealist (though she is) and not because of particular humanitarian or foreign affairs credentials (though she has those, via U.N. and National Security Council positions in the Obama administration), but because she blends big thinking with a hard-nosed practicality about getting things done. And USAID desperately needs to find new ways to get things done.

Upon entering USAID’s Ronald Reagan Building headquarters, Power, if confirmed, is in for the kind of reality check that stuns many a development newcomer — myself included. USAID as it functions today is hardly the tool it needs to be in order to, per its mission statement, “promote and demonstrate democratic values abroad, and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.” When I transitioned to government and economic development from the worlds of business and entrepreneurship, I took to calling it a “rubber screwdriver.” Push, turn and try as one might, the instrument often fails to implement real, often laudable policy goals.

Current chatter frames Power’s undertaking as one of restoring America’s global leadership, or reviving an agency battered (like much of the Trump executive branch) by contentious appointments, loss of morale and White House-versus-career staff feuds. There is also USAID’s age-old struggle for foreign policy respect on par with the State and Defense Departments — a question Biden appears to be answering with Power’s pedigree as a former Cabinet member. 

But much of what ails USAID should really be traced to how it works on a day-to-day basis, in particular its sclerotic procurement process. The fact is, USAID is not so much an aid and development agency as it is a contracting bureaucracy. Much of the U.S. government operates like this – federal agencies, led by the Pentagon, annually outsource some $600 billion worth of goods and services – and USAID is an exemplar, with just a handful of “Beltway Bandits” winning the lion’s share of the agency’s nearly $20 billion annual budget. These behemoth contractors, not USAID staff, typically run the food security, AIDS, sanitation and other programs on USAID’s docket. They do so less because of subject-matter expertise and more because they have mastered the 53 volumes and thousands of pages of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, dedicating substantial headcount to procurement specialists and lawyers who are very good at meeting bid minutia and contesting awards lost.

This arrangement could make sense in the context of ordering billion-dollar military machines. But it is all wrenches (or rubber screwdrivers) for the array of projects in USAID’s portfolio. COVID-19 response, girls’ education, climate resiliency and small business development programming require nimble, innovative and sundry solutions. As a development adviser in Hillary Clinton’s State Department and then occasional contractor on entrepreneurship projects in Africa and the Caribbean, I repeatedly saw bureaucratic morass kill off new, high-potential program ideas designed to implement administration policy themes. (My small consultancy routinely contended for and won work from European and World Bank programs, but we cowered at the hoops presented by USAID’s bid processes.) 

In short, Power is not walking into a job that needs her compassion (or political savvy) but her practicality. 

Fortunately, this is how Power thinks, and she has wrestled with the dynamic before. She characterizes her career as an ongoing “Education of an Idealist” (the title of her 2019 memoir), a struggle to reconcile a staunch moral commitment to bettering lives with policymaking’s realities of compromise and disappointment.

Power answers challenges to idealism with concrete solutions. “Restoring American leadership,” she recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “must include the more basic task of showing that the United States is a capable problem solver once more… This means less rhetorical emphasis on the abstract cause of ‘the liberal international order’ and more practical demonstrations of the United States’ distinctive ability to deliver on issues that matter right now in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.” 

Power likes “visible results,” and she can point to many on her CV. Coordinating the U.S. response to Ebola in West Africa and negotiating the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are among them. Washington sees Power (and she sees herself) as a policymaker who picks her battles and makes a difference where she can —identifiable differences.

As agency head, this is the administrative prerogative Power needs to bring to the job, and reforming USAID’s procurement process is where she should start. Streamline bidding processes, diversify vendors, inject flexibility into contract terms. This, not idealism, is the next USAID administrator’s task. 

Steven R. Koltai is non-resident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and research affiliate at the MIT International Science & Technology Initiatives (MISTI). He was the first senior adviser for entrepreneurship at the U.S. Department of State, 2009-2011.

Tags Biden Hillary Clinton Samantha Power United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

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