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USAID's mission is too important to politicize and obstruct

USAID's mission is too important to politicize and obstruct

The abrupt firing of Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee Biden Pentagon pick could make up to .7M from leaving Raytheon Acting Pentagon chief condemns violence, commends law enforcement response to Capitol attack MORE last week is part of a series of unsettling developments during a presidential transition that raises major national security concerns. The same day, chaos was promised from an agency with a proud apolitical tradition, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as John Barsa — the acting administrator who has succeeded in overstaying the 210-day legal limit on his initial appointment thanks only to the firing of Bonnie Glick, the agency’s second-highest official — announced that he too would not cooperate with the presidential transition.

Dysfunction and obstruction at USAID could not happen at a worse time. The agency operates at the intersection of our four most pressing national and global crises — the coronavirus pandemic, global economic recession, climate change, and structural racism — and could play a pivotal role in addressing each.

First, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is equipped to help end the pandemic, and its Biodiversity Conservation and Forestry Program could help prevent another zoonotic disease from imperiling the planet. 

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When I served at the Department of State during the peak of the Ebola epidemic, USAID was a linchpin of the U.S. response, providing medical personnel, equipment and expertise to West Africa, averting the spread of the virus to the U.S., and supplying the most vulnerable areas with support even after the number of cases reached zero.

Heading into the winter months, we continue to see the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths spike across our country. The incoming administration will no doubt be laser-focused on reversing these trends at home. The president-elect also clearly recognizes that the economy's health and its people will not be secure unless other international hotspots are brought under control. 

What USAID is responsible for doing right now is vital to this. The agency’s $1.6 billion endeavor to launch rapid-response programs in partner countries requires unbiased, apolitical stability and leadership to ensure the agency does its part in conquering this pandemic. That work cannot wait or be put on hold until the swearing-in of a new administration. 

Second, with a long history of economic empowerment initiatives in the Global South, USAID also has the capacity to implement programs aimed at jumpstarting economic recovery abroad, which will quickly redound to the benefit of the U.S. economy as we seek to reverse our own recession. 

Africa presents an acute illustration of the devastating economic effects of COVID-19, where direct foreign investment has fallen by 40 percent, approximately 30 million jobs are expected to be lost, and around 49 million people are slated to experience extreme poverty. In response to this crisis, USAID can scale infrastructure, local financing and capital mobilization, market accessibility, and sustainable development programs. Sweeping, targeted programs can strengthen local economies, bring American-made products to the international market, and drive down supply chain costs.

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Third, USAID serves as a critical counterpart to US efforts to act on climate change. USAID has the on-the-ground presence and tracks a record of launching initiatives needed to reduce carbon footprints, bolster local resilience to extreme weather, take preventative measures against climate-driven displacement, and increase sustainable development and job creation. USAID is currently collaborating with India’s three largest states to introduce renewable energy platforms like solar energy, stunt deforestation, and support rural communities, among other initiatives. And in the Congo Basin, USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment has led the charge in sustainable forest management and conservation. Combating the acceleration and effects of the climate crisis requires a global response that can only be achieved through U.S. diplomacy and development. None of these efforts can be allowed to stall because of politically-motivated intransigence during a delicate transition of power.

Finally, USAID serves as a relevant microcosm for how an incoming administration could take meaningful steps to root out structural racism in our country and abroad. In June, more than 1,000 staff urged John Barsa and the Departments of State and Defense to introduce anti-racist policies internally and launch more inclusive hiring strategies. 

A failure to do so not only undermines USAID’s mission but also risks our international reputation as rival nations relish the opportunity to point out America’s deficits. USAID is an institutional ambassador worldwide; visible evidence of honest efforts to get our house in order is broadcast to corners of the world where we seek to broaden our reach and reinforce our legitimacy.

Even during a two-month transition — indeed especially then — we need USAID to do its job. When the Trump administration mulled a plan in 2019 to cut billions in foreign aid, which would have gutted USAID, Republican leaders joined their Democratic counterparts to appreciate that decimating this institution was “short-sighted” and a threat to national security. President-elect Biden manifestly gets this. It would be a bipartisan shame if the agency were left in political tatters before it has a chance to lead again. 

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah served as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of State during the Ebola crisis and Policy Director for First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. She is now President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.