May 01, 2014

USAID & The National Interest

Many Americans are convinced that foreign aid fails to advance the national interest, while others are vexed that they might be aimed at doing precisely that. A prime example of the latter mindset is reflected in an article by Mark Varga that argues some nations are right to ban USAID. Varga appears to feign surprise that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) promotes democracy and civil society programs broadly congruent with U.S. interests. His outrage may be intended to attack programs that promote “regime change,” including a recent politically inspired social media campaign in Cuba.

As the former third-ranking official at USAID, I share Varga’s concern about the need to preserve, build and use America’s soft power. However, in focusing on the “digital Bay of Pigs” project to attack many U.S. foreign assistance programs, he picks a fight with a relatively weak institution, ignores the many successes of U.S. foreign aid, and fails to offer realistic and constructive policy recommendations.

As someone who used to have a front-row seat in the development policy arena, I would make three broad points in defense of USAID.

First, the American people get the development policy they want. There are so many executive and legislative branch policymakers who influence development programs that USAID might be considered something like a large shopping mall (vice, say, a department store). Some officials (mistakenly) view USAID as a contracting agency, a vehicle for projects in the developing world.

A second and related point is that our Cuba development programs are the exception to the rule. Because of point one, and unwavering U.S. political opposition to the Castro regime, there remains a deep commitment to doing more to open up Cuba. The driving forces for this approach are outside rather than inside USAID.

Varga might not disagree with these two points, but his article leaves the impression that USAID develops programs outside of our democratic policy process. He also implies that democracy promotion necessarily undercuts rather than advances our national powers of attraction. I would argue just the opposite and contrast most of these programs with, say, wars of choice and indiscriminate drone strikes.

Democracy and governance programs have varied depending on the political forces and currents of the time. In general, this is a good thing. Some autocratic and semi-authoritarian governments want to benefit from globalization and international commerce, but they retrench at the thought of a flourishing civil society. So sure, Venezuela, Bolivia and even Ecuador have opposed democratic programs. But that doesn’t mean we should not try. USAID can partner with organizations that promote peaceful change and support a rules-based international system (i.e., liberal world order). The social media app in Cuba, however, demonstrates how ideas can go amiss.

This leads to my third point. There is a general lack of understanding across the U.S. government about how to harness the Internet, social media and modern communications. This is a broadside with notable exceptions, but my main point is that rapidly changing technology is difficult enough to understand; it is exponentially more difficult when it comes to applying it to societies — including our own society, but especially foreign societies. USAID (along with all U.S. foreign aid programs) requires better due diligence, particularly when dealing with sensitive and complex issues.

Previously I have promoted building a semi-independent research institute for USAID to mirror the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) such as RAND that have been successfully used by the Department of Defense. I would expand my earlier recommendation to have an FFRDC to cover diplomacy as well as development programs. One cannot be separated from the other. Such an institute could make up for the lack of research, due diligence, and cross-fertilization of ideas with multiple audiences that can pre-empt bad ideas and refine policy diamonds in the rough.

President Barack Obama ended his recent trip through Asia by defending his policy of avoiding war and emphasizing diplomacy. One can disagree with the execution of his diplomacy-first policy (leadership and power are still requirements, too), but surely he was correct about the importance of our civilian-led programs. Isn’t it time that we were more serious about our civilian tools of international engagement? 

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program and the former Assistant Administrator for Policy and Program Coordination at USAID.

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