The Case for Keeping USAID and the State Department Separate

April 10, 2017 By Abhik K. Pramanik

While much recent attention has focused on the proposal in the Administration’s “skinny budget” to slash funding for the State Department and USAID by 31 percent, the budget was accompanied by an Executive Order that requires the head of each agency to submit a “Plan to Improve the Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Accountability of Federal Agencies, Including, as Appropriate, to Eliminate or Reorganize Unnecessary or Redundant Federal Agencies” within 180 days.

This language echoes recommendations by some to “bring USAID directly under the control of the State Department” that not only risk jeopardizing the long-term strategic arm of America’s national security toolkit but would very likely make U.S. development assistance less, rather than more, effective.

Complementary Missions with Different Goals

USAID is “an independent establishment in the Executive Branch” by statute, but it does not operate beyond the guidance of American foreign policy. The USAID Administrator works “under the direct authority and foreign policy guidance of the Secretary of State” according to 1998 law, and USAID’s budget is overseen by the State Department to ensure coordination with broader U.S. foreign policy objectives.

USAID and State have complementary missions with different goals that advance America’s interests around the world. USAID is focused on “ending extreme poverty and promoting resilient, democratic societies,” while the State Department’s mission is to “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just and democratic world.”

In practice, this means that the State Department is primarily concerned with state-to-state relations with foreign governments and short-term goals that enhance American security, while USAID often has closer ties with the broader population whose health, education, and economic prosperity are the focus of U.S. foreign assistance, with the goal of fostering long-term stability and economic growth in a country.

Mitigating the drivers of extremism or food insecurity are long-term goals that require a sustained commitment. If USAID were to become completely subordinate to the State Department, the latter’s short-term goals may start to crowd out the equally important objectives of the former. In Afghanistan, for example, some have suggested that the U.S. effectively had 15 one-year reconstruction programs in the country instead of a single sustainable longer-term project.

USAID and the State Department are also fundamentally different organizations, with distinct cultures, that pursue their goals through different methods. Whereas the State Department’s diplomatic corps is primarily responsible for acting as political mediators and policy analysts that report their findings back to Washington, USAID manages programs, including the application of new and rigorous metrics in recent years to evaluate the impact of these programs and incorporate lessons learned.

If USAID were to be integrated into the State Department, the agency would likely lose its ability to effectively and accountably implement and evaluate its development programs. As former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios recently argued, if the two were merged and the “State Department Foreign Service system [were] used to hire AID officers, the development function will cease to exist in the U.S. government.”

Why This Matters

Maintaining a strong, independent USAID is critical to U.S. national security, as its work seeks to prevent crises— like the Ebola outbreak that occurred in West Africa. Pandemics and famines don’t have military solutions, but providing timely health and food aid through programs like USAID’s Food for Peace can help avert larger crises from requiring military intervention and so improve our own security.

If USAID were to be integrated into State, this restructuring would not only ignore the great strides USAID has made to become more efficient and accountable over the past decade, but would also make our development assistance less effective in the long run. The U.S. government’s capacity through USAID to work among foreign populations and contain threats, to set long-term goals, and to effectively monitor and evaluate development programs are all crucial capabilities that would likely be lost.

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney’s comment that “this is a hard-power budget, not a soft-power budget” misses the point. Increasingly, the largest threats to global stability aren’t just conventional, state-based dangers like North Korea’s nuclear program or Chinese expansionism. Rather, they come from problems linked to poor, fragile states such as the risk of global pandemics, food insecurity triggering the collapse of states, and violent extremism fueled by injustice, lack of opportunity, and hopelessness.

With an unprecedented global famine predicted this year that will threaten 20 million people with starvation— the most since the UN’s establishment, a record 65 million refugees, signs of the next pandemic already visible, and the threat of violent extremism around the world, now is not the time to retreat— or to weaken our crucial development capabilities.