OPINION: USAID at 60 by John Norris (03 November 2021)

Opinion: USAID at 60

The U.S. Agency for International Development, America’s foreign aid agency, marks its 60th anniversary today (11/03/2021). So what have we learned in the six decades since President John F. Kennedy declared, amid rising Cold War tensions, “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves”?

Given the contentious history of U.S. foreign assistance — frequently derided as money thrown down “foreign ratholes” and “the greatest giveaway in history” by Congressional critics over the years — it is no surprise that debates about foreign aid have often been reduced to a single common denominator: Does it work? Over the years, the scholarly literature has, for the most part, answered with a qualified: “Yes, some of the time; but it depends on the circumstances.”

There has been a cottage industry highly critical of foreign aid. Books with titles like “The Road to Hell” and “Dead Aid” leave little suspense as to their view, painting these efforts as everything from incompetent to evil. Foreign aid has been criticized for interfering with the proper functions of free markets, propping up dictatorial strongmen, and lining the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats — all of which it has done at different times.

Growing the community of donors was one of Kennedy’s foundational goals for USAID. Economists, by and large, have struggled to separate the impact of foreign aid from the multitude of other forces influencing the arc of economic growth and human development. Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton once huffed, “When the conditions for development are present, aid is not required. When local conditions are hostile to development, aid is not useful; and it will do harm if it perpetuates those conditions.”

One should look at the distress of economists such as Deaton with a degree of sympathy while wholeheartedly agreeing that foreign aid always works best when its recipients are genuinely committed to reform.

How do you fairly evaluate U.S. foreign assistance overall when, on the one hand, it helped make South Korea and Taiwan economic powerhouses but, on the other, it squandered billions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam? How do you properly value the worth of the assistance that directed tens of millions of dollars to Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, yet also introduced simple, lifesaving health interventions that have saved the lives of millions of children around the globe?

The relative merits of aid become clearer when we step back and look at the world when USAID was created and the conditions today. In 1960, women in low- and middle-income countries had an average of more than five children. As of 2017, that number was more than halved. In 1960, life expectancy at birth in low- and middle-income countries was 47 years; by 2017, this number had risen to 71. Think of this figure not as a dry statistic but as a practical reality: The average person in the developing world was enjoying 24 more years of life in 2017 than 1960. That is a remarkable advancement of the human condition within a breathtakingly short period of time.

Devex ranks the top 10 USAID grant implementers. Here’s a look at how much COVID-19 funding they received, including the biggest COVID-19-related project each grantee was awarded: https://www.devex.com/news/usaid-top-10-grantees-in-2020-who-received-covid-19-funding-100189

Of course, the degree of credit foreign assistance deserves in this wave of progress is a complicated question. In many ways, the debate over the efficacy of foreign aid is almost laughable. The U.S. and other donors have delivered lifesaving humanitarian assistance to millions upon millions of people since 1960. There have been major, long running campaigns against cholera, smallpox, malaria, and polio — with polio pushed to the brink of eradication and smallpox eliminated.

A push from donors helped millions of girls receive a basic education for the first time, and international family planning programs have been essential in allowing women to have smaller, better cared for families where they are not forced to constantly have more babies simply to stay one step ahead of grim actuarial odds. Advances in agricultural technology – most importantly, the Green Revolution launched in the late 1960s, were often funded by foreign aid when there was not a clear market incentive to assist poor, smallholder farmers, and they have led to millions of people avoiding hunger and economic privation.

In reality, any single one of these accomplishments would more than justify the rather paltry 1% of the federal budget that the U.S. spends on foreign assistance. How could an effort that saved millions of lives not be worth it? How could an endeavor, even though flawed, that contributed to the most rapid gains in human health and well-being in history, not be money well spent?

As William Gaud, one of USAID’s early leaders, argued that there are two basic reasons to provide foreign assistance: It is in our self-interest and it is the right thing to do.

But of course, we can and should learn from what at times have been serious missteps.

Sixty years on, USAID remains a reflection of Americans as a people: restless, ambitious, entrepreneurial, sometimes arrogant, and still striving to leave the world a better place than we found it.

First and foremost, we should recognize that USAID’s most prominent failures have come in instances where the U.S. tried to use foreign assistance as a blunt strategic instrument, as the recent painful images from Afghanistan only reinforce. Instrumentalizing foreign aid to help achieve short-term military or diplomatic aims has never worked well and there is no indication it will do so in the future.

Locations where USAID has had its largest field presence have often delivered the most disappointing results: Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s; Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s; Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of Sept. 11. Each of these settings involved high-profile national security priorities, where resources and manpower were almost unlimited but there was very little willingness to question how, or even if, development could work under such conditions.

In many ways, USAID has also become less influential over the years. In the agency’s early years, the U.S. maintained outsized influence around the world and across much of the developing world, particularly Latin America. Other donors, and other sources of finance — either public or private — to the developing world were relatively modest. This meant that USAID as a donor dominated the landscape as developing countries faced a stark choice between embracing Washington or aligning with global communism.

Today, there are dozens of donors around the globe, and almost all of them had, at one time, benefited from receiving U.S. assistance — from the Marshall Plan onward. This is a notable achievement. Growing the community of donors was one of Kennedy’s foundational goals for USAID.

Private financial flows now dwarf foreign aid and its impact on developing economies. So, in this sense, it becomes entirely understandable how USAID is far less influential than it was during the 1960s and 1970s. USAID is but one voice of many, and that is not a bad thing.
But USAID has also become less influential over the years for more troubling reasons. There is probably not a single member of the development community who feels that USAID has not become excessively bogged down by rules, regulations, reporting, and earmarks imposed by Congress and its own bureaucracy. Requirement after requirement has been layered onto the agency over the years as process has often crowded out substance.

It has become almost impossible for the agency to spend small amounts of money nimbly, and many projects now take years to get from design through approval to the point of being implemented.

Sixty years on, USAID remains a reflection of Americans as a people: restless, ambitious, entrepreneurial, sometimes arrogant, and still striving to leave the world a better place than we found it.

(This is an edited excerpt from “The Enduring Struggle: The History of the U.S Agency for International Development and America’s Uneasy Transformation of the World,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.
About the author: John Norris
John Norris is the author of The Enduring Struggle: The History of the U.S. Agency for International Development and America’s Uneasy Transformation of the World. In addition to being an author, John Norris has served in a number of senior roles in government, international institutions, and nonprofits. He currently works at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — although the view expressed here are entirely his own.)