USAID: An Institution Fighting for Survival

Established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was designed to advance America’s interests while fulfilling a humanitarian duty to the world’s poorest nations. USAID has had its existence threatened by Congress since its inception but whether this criticism is warranted or simply an easy means to gain public support is debatable.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the average respondent believed that the US government spends 26% of the federal budget a year on foreign assistance. This common, but gross overestimation allows USAID and other forms of humanitarian assistance to be placed on the chopping block during an administration transition. In reality, foreign assistance and international development only account for less than 1% of the total federal budget. In addition, the US spends significantly less on official development assistance than other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.  Official development assistance is defined as, “government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries” According to data from 2016 shown in Table 1 the USA was ranked 25th in terms of official development assistance as a percentage of gross national income.

Net ODA as a Percentage of Gross National Income | OECD Data

The general public is not only misinformed about Uncle Sam’s generosity but also about the purpose and priorities of USAID and development. The mission of USAID is, “to partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity.” This mission is twofold with both humanitarian and national security priorities. From a humanitarian perspective USAID and its programs has helped build local capacity and lift people out of extreme poverty. In the past thirty years, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day has been cut on half in part because of the work of USAID. Economic development initiatives by USAID try to tackle this global inequality, as no one’s daily income should be what others spend on their morning coffee. USAID works in over 100 different countries with programs focused across health, governance, economic growth, and conflict resolution.

While noble in theory, USAID can be legitimately criticised for some of its chosen interventions since its beginnings. One of the broadest and most reoccurring reproaches of USAID is a lack of coordination leading to inefficiencies. Part of this is due to its formation, which essentially lumped all existing aid organisations at the time into USAID without complementing this merger with a clear direction.  In addition, the agency is subject to the administration’s priorities at that time which makes long-term commitment to objectives and goals difficult.

Alexandra Riboul with USAID talks with children at Tabarre Issa Emergency Relocation Camp | Kendra Helmer USAID

Scandals have also spoiled the reputation of USAID over the years. USAID was infamously exposed for its ‘Cuba Twitter’ humiliation, which tried to covertly bring about the collapse of communism through the use of a social media platform. Accusations of intelligence gathering and meddling in foreign governments by USAID were also substantiated in the organisation’s involvement in Venezuela. The agency attempted to oust Huge Chavez by undermining his supportive base. The discovery of USAID’s involvement in these programs legitimises the critics of the aid industry. While these examples display an overreach of USAID’s purpose there has always been a national security and ‘soft power’ component to the organisation.

The pursuit of economic development and transparent accountable governments reduces factors that contribute to fragile states and instability. In today’s context, “foreign aid promotes national security by helping to combat conditions that spawn terrorism-namely weak institutions and corruption.” International development seeks to tackle the institutionalised problems in society while building up human capacity.  Recipients of aid deserve to live in an open, safe society that can produce and sustain opportunities for its citizens.  By stabilising and expanding economic growth opportunities for developing countries, USAID also circulates a positive reputation for America. This influence assists in creating ally relationships and fostering productive partnerships between nation states.

International aid is held to a higher standard than other industries. When money is seen as being wasted because of inefficiency or corruption a popular thought is to collapse the whole industry. For example, this standard is not shared by the defence industry where wars are entered into and fought with low returns, leaving countries destabilised and devastated. Aid is an industry and as such will be plagued to some extent with inefficiency. However, as both a humanitarian responsibility and soft power tool USAID is an essential industry deserving of constructive criticism at times, but not of dissolution.

Feature Image: USAID | Flickr


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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