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article imageOp-Ed: Poor Direction for USAID

By Frank Kaufmann     May 7, 2012 in Politics
New York - Since its founding in 1961, USAID has continuously provided poverty relief, public health and education services targeted at the poorest. Under Herbert Hoover we helped prevent starvation in Belgium after the German invasion. Now look at the agency.
An important milestone in America's continued turn in wrong directions went unnoticed last month as Dr. Rajiv Shah, 16th USAID administrator redefined the agency's direction and orientation in a policy speech in New York City for the Council on Foreign Relations.
The speech was rife with smoke-speak. Realities like "closing 11 missions," and "cutting 165 projects and programs" is described excitedly as part of "prioritizing comprehensive evaluation and transparency, [using] the state-of-the-art rigorous evaluation policy." Says Shah, "we are embarking on an ambitious reform agenda called USAID Forward."
But not talking straight is normal in government and political life. We are used to this. In the mouth of a government person, bombs and missiles become aerial ordinance. That poor Dr. Shah lives in such a world and doesn't say what he means is a tragedy not unique to him. Furthermore, he hints at some good in parts of this speech. It is good if government agencies can be less wasteful (i.e., less thieving and less pocket lining). If USAID can sustain similar reform, this is a good thing.
The problem is not that Dr. Shah speaks like other government appointees. The problem lies in what Dr. Shah fails to conceal in his eight prepared pages of mind-numbing detail, despite his efforts at "policy" sleight of hand and the popular new language and worship of "assessment."
AID, according to Shah, no longer means caring for the welfare of those assisted. In the section of his speech called "Value for Money," the sugar coating dissolves to celebrate a grotesque overlay of national self-interest that now overpowers "giving." AID is presented unabashedly as a tool for promoting American self-interest and security. It no longer serves the needs of those to whom it is given. We no longer give. We invest.
This shift alone should warrant deep concern. America's grand and often under-appreciated generosity, has been the shining star atop the chance to be genuinely proud as Americans.
Real giving continues to define the American way of life even now. A fascinating report came out as we suffered our horrifying economic downturn.
Even as Americans began feeling the pinch of soaring gas prices, falling stock markets and a looming mortgage crisis, they donated $306.39 billion to charity in 2007, more than ever before... Americans continue to give and to give more, in spite of when they may be feeling other economic pressures.
This is how Americans give even in thick economic despair, not as a twisted tool to manipulate American self-interest:
Religion: $102.32 billion, up 1.8 percent after inflation
Education: $43.32 billion, up 3.4 percent after inflation
Human services: $29.64 billion, up 5.4 percent after inflation
Health: $23.15 billion, up 2.4 percent after inflation
Public society benefit: $22.65 billion, up 2.9 percent after inflation
Arts, culture and humanities: $13.67 billion, up 4.8 percent after inflation
International affairs: $13.22 billion, up 12.9 percent after inflation
Environment and animals: $6.96 billion, up 7.7 percent after inflation
Simple giving to make things better.
Americans continue to give, but USAID moves in a different direction. Dr. Shah's policy speech shows clearly how the agency consciously abandons its noble roots.
John F. Kennedy created USAID in 1961 by executive order to "extend a helping hand to those people overseas struggling to make a better life, recover from a disaster or striving to live in a free and democratic country."
Even before that the precursor to USAID, the Committee for Relief in Belgium prevented starvation in Belgium after the German invasion.
Under Nixon Congress adopted a USAID proposal for "New Directions" in foreign aid by amending the Foreign Assistance Act so that U.S. aid should emphasize "Basic Human Needs": food and nutrition; population planning and health; and education and human resources development.
This shift from true giving to self-interest is bad, but sadly not the worst of what the Shah speech unfolds.
The speech clearly shows that the mission and orientation of USAID has been subverted to become another quiver in the ultra-militarized mindset that infects both post 2001 US administrations. The current president and secretary of state are the administration that cannot apologize for killing ally soldiers with our drones in their own country, the administration that spent billions of dollars on 1,210 airstrike missions and 101 Predator drone strike missions in the three and a half month Libya campaign perpetrated without Congressional approval, and the same administration responsible for the horribly controversial National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA FY 2012) already signed as an Executive Order by President Barack Obama (which the world's largest human rights group updated its explanation of the bill to say it includes provision for targeted killings of Americans.)
Why this list of military and security misbehavior in an article on USAID?
Because this is the lodestone in Shah's USAID policy speech. In his opening paragraph he says:
"President Obama and Secretary Clinton both called for elevating development in America’s foreign policy, alongside diplomacy and defense. They both believe that the development work USAID's staff does around the world was just as vital to our interests as the work of our soldiers and diplomats."
Where do we find USAID workers now that a dozen missions have been shuttered, and 165 projects closed? Afghanistan. "We have no illusions, says Shah, "about how difficult the road ahead in Afghanistan will be. But we’re working with our partners to ensure the gains we make can last as our troops responsibly exit." He's speaking about the work of USAID, not Blackwater or Halliburton.
Shah concludes his speech with the rousing cheer: "Those values are what drive people to join our military, to fight for freedom and protect their families from extremism and terror. They are what drive college students to oversubscribe courses in development and global health. And they are what drive us—the staff of USAID—to fulfill an incredible mission."
How unacceptable are these closing words confounding and implicating the abundant, caring idealism of American young people with the current departure from upright American traditions in the name of security and non-declared wars. In the name of security our domestic freedoms have been defiled, and our moral dignity abroad has been forfeited.
We rightfully honor our young men and women in uniform with our humble gratitude. But must even giving, caring, and helping also be thrust among the world's needy with rifle in hand?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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