It might not be my Grandmother’s USAID, but we should embrace it like it’s 1961

September 30, 2013 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

As September draws to a close, it finally feels like fall here in the nation’s capital. Dusting off my favorite pair of boots, I suddenly noticed I was not only thinking about the changing weather, but also USAID, and believe it or not, my grandmother. No, this isn’t some kind of “Mad Libs” turned blog post. The new season, America’s first international development agency, and my paternal lineage actually belong in the same sentence and share more in common than you might initially think.

Let’s start with September, which means saying goodbye to sticky summer commutes, but it also marks the anniversary of the day the U.S. Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Mandating “the creation of an agency to promote long-term assistance for economic and social development,” this piece of legislation paved the way for the creation of USAID. Then, there’s one of my favorite holidays: National Grandparents Day.

USAID and the G3s (Greatest Generation Grandparents)

In addition to September, USAID and the G3s share an increasingly colloquial phrase: “This is not your grandparents’ USAID.” It’s got a catchy ring to it, but what does this DC-ism mean? Has USAID changed over time?

Looking back to 1961, my grandmother would have been around the same age I am now, and in all likelihood, she wouldn’t have given much thought to the new American development agency. What she did know about, all too well I might add, is the bravery of our troops who fought in World War II and the strategic generosity of Americans during the post-war period.

In the years following my Granddaddy’s participation in D-Day, America had become a country that incorporated the value of international assistance into U.S. foreign policy, and as a result, USAID’s roots are deeply linked to the success of the Marshall Plan and President Truman’s Point Four Program. The latter had two main goals:

  1. “Creating markets for the United States by reducing poverty and increasing production in developing countries;”
  2. “Diminishing the threat of communism by helping countries prosper under capitalism.”

Sound familiar? The threat du jour may no longer be communism, but plenty of global challenges have stepped in to take its place. Plus, we know that investing overseas, when done well, can reduce poverty and build new markets for U.S. products (South Korea, anyone?). Factor in every $1 billion in new U.S. exports creates 5,000 jobs right here in America, and the foundation of USAID’s mission sounds like a win-win in my book!

So wait, why is this not my Grandmother’s USAID?

President Kennedy declared the 1960s “development decade,” but if I had to pick one word to describe the past ten years for USAID, it would have to be “results,” as in a new focus on development results. The first “USAID Forward” Progress Report released earlier this year indicates that USAID is taking steps towards rebuilding its human capacity and becoming a more effective, accountable, and transparent development agency. And just as important perhaps, USAID also acknowledges where its efforts to do so have fallen short.


Alongside a prioritization of metrics, evaluations, and transparency, there’s a new emphasis on public private partnerships and harnessing the increasingly globalized benefits of science and technology.
There is now a virtual menu of possible development gizmos and groundbreaking public private partnerships for USGLC’s Innovations in Smart Power Campaign to highlight. I mean really, does it get any cooler than partnering with NASA and NIKE, at the same time?

Bells and whistles aside, the continuous thread over the past five decades is the value of USAID’s development contributions. What mattered in 1961 “must continue,” as President Kennedy put it, “because the Nation’s interest and the cause of political freedom require it.”

The types of threats we face today would have sounded like science fiction to my Grandmother in 1961, but unfortunately, they are very real and hyper global. So until USAID puts itself out of business, I for one am grateful the U.S. government has a full range of technologically advanced, increasingly effective civilian tools at its disposal – in addition to our military might.

So the next time you marvel at DC’s rare crisp morning air, maybe you too will find yourself connecting the first month of fall to America’s lead “program of assistance to the underdeveloped nations”? – President Kennedy, 1961

Dedicated to my Grandmother Marjorie Chandler and the late Lieutenant Russell Chandler Jr., who bravely piloted a Douglas C-47 into Normandy to drop paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne on D-Day.