After six decades of US foreign aid, our future must be guided by the past

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha PowerSamantha PowerAfter six decades of US foreign aid, our future must be guided by the past White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push MORE was in the forefront last week as the agency she leads celebrated its 60th anniversary. Power used the occasion to set forth an impressive strategy for the modern era, an approach she called “inclusive development.” 

Power’s eloquent tribute to a mission that hasn’t always been embraced by the American polity caused me to think back to six distinctive epochs of our relationship with the world and its neediest nation-states. Each of these periods is characterized by a unique political environment that impacted the capacity of USAID to achieve development progress. 

The American aid program faced positive and negative pressures in each of these periods: The reconstruction of post-war Europe; the post-colonial independence period; the Cold War; the “end-of-history” decades; the America First regression; and now, the contemporary era of transnational challenges. 

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The Marshall Plan is viewed by many as the largest, most selfless aid program in history. There were reconstruction and humanitarian relief elements — food, healthcare and housing — involved in resurrecting the European nations devastated by World War II. It was more than just resources, as the U.S. also applied an important policy condition: That the former warring societies integrate their economies. Within a decade, the Europeans had begun to function somewhat normally and the early institutional arrangements spawned the European Union.

The success of the Marshall Plan set an unrealistically high standard for foreign aid. The Europeans had been blessed with educated populations and a history of industrialization that was relatively easily replicated once the resources were made available. 

In his 1949 inaugural address, President Truman set a new course for U.S. assistance in point four of his security-oriented message. He committed the U.S. to use its advantages “for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.”

As Power recounted in her anniversary remarks, President John F. Kennedy recognized the vital role the U.S. could play in the post-colonial period. Sixty years ago, he established the institutions that brought Truman’s commitment to life: USAID and the Peace Corps. Kennedy also created the Development Assistance Group (later to become the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) to coordinate efforts with other donors.

All of this activity and the goodwill that inspired it did not mean that donor aid was particularly effective. “The Ugly American” by Lederer and Burdick became a metaphor for an era of experimentation, a multitude of projects that often awkwardly sought to do development for and to people rather than with them. 

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Then came the Cold War and the effort to win hearts and minds while containing Soviet influence. It no longer seemed that helping others help themselves was sufficient. A new requirement was imposed: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” USAID was pulled into situations that compromised the bedrock of effective development work: Trust.

Despite these challenges, the agency responded to humanitarian crises and deteriorating global conditions related to food shortages, population growth and infectious disease. USAID worked with Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug to create a green revolution, vastly increasing food production and avoiding mass starvation. Unsustainable population growth and infectious disease were impacted positively by USAID programs that eradicated smallpox and offered effective family planninggirls’ education and the entrepreneurial opportunities provided by microenterprise lending.

These effective programs weren’t just created in an American laboratory, they were also the creation of the agency’s partners in the field, the people who were the objects of development and who knew best what would work for them. Memories of the “Ugly American” were beginning to recede by the 1980s.

During the Cold War USAID’s budgets benefitted from a bipartisan coalition in favor of a “guns and butter” approach to competing with the communist threat. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, that bipartisan support started to fray. Resources were made available to facilitate the transition of communist states to market democracies, but there was a growing consensus among more hardline members of Congress that a “peace dividend” was needed. USAID’s budget and its very existence became an issue.

The pressures created by the challenge to survive produced a positive internal dynamic. Either the agency reformed and became more efficient and accountable or it would never celebrate another anniversary. USAID began to focus more on defining strategic objectives, measuring results and fostering partnerships. 

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In the end, the United States was instrumental in encouraging the global development community to define its strategic goals. A political project that had started in the OECD Development Assistance Committee became the UN Millennium Development Goals. With clear, politically salient objectives and the obligation to measure results, donor country budgets surged by 50 percent between 2001 and 2015. 

Sadly, during this period of program growth, USAID’s operating budget to hire professional staff was significantly reduced, forcing the agency to contract out for staffing. Even the commendable effort by the George W. Bush administration to elevate the development mission as an integral part of a defense, diplomacy and development (3-D) national security strategy didn’t fix this problem. 

Power wants to reverse that trend. She wants to build back a professional staff at USAID that reflects the diversity of our country. That has always been an advantage for America in its global relationships; it is the gold standard for effective development work, the facility to listen well, relate and create trust. She also wants to recognize and utilize more effectively the host country nationals that are the mainstays of USAID’s overseas missions.

Power also has given new meaning and impetus to the principle of local ownership. In the vernacular, this translates into buy-in. It means that U.S. resources will be used to achieve purposes that the people of a developing country both need and want. This will not be easy. There are powerful political, legal and bureaucratic obstacles in the way. However, there are encouraging signs on Capitol Hill and in the development community that Power’s effort to “go local” will gain the needed support. 

The transnational threats to global stability and the welfare of the American people are serving to recreate a semblance of the bipartisan support USAID has had in previous years. Samantha Power has made a compelling case for the development mission in this sixth epoch.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of USAID at the beginning of the “fourth epoch,” from 1993 to 1999.