Experts Concerned By Leaderless USAID

Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often talks about the need to boost development assistance, the U.S. Agency for International Development still doesn't have a leader. Development experts are encouraging the Obama administration to get its act together soon.

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When it comes to the three D's of foreign policy, development often takes a backseat to defense and diplomacy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has talked about how she wants to change that.

The trouble is, the Obama administration has yet to name someone to head the agency that runs U.S. foreign assistance programs.And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, that is making development experts nervous.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When Secretary Clinton went to the U.S. Agency for International Development in July, she had been hoping to announce a new administrator, but ended up venting about the selection process.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): The clearance and vetting process is a nightmare. It is frustrating beyond words.

KELEMEN: Now, development experts are encouraging the Obama administration to get its act together soon. Raymond Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America and a leading voice in a coalition called the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

Mr. RAYMOND OFFENHEISER (President, Oxfam America): I think what really worries us is that if we don't get that leader in place pretty soon - and I guess we feel there's a real urgency to it - that things are going to begin moving forward. There's just an enormous amount of momentum behind this reform process.

KELEMEN: Members of Congress are working on legislation to reform USAID programs, and Offenheiser points out that Secretary Clinton has launched a review of her own.

Mr. OFFENHEISER: The State Department has advanced this quadrennial diplomacy and development review under Secretary Clinton that's ambitious and potentially visionary, but there isn't a development voice at the table presently, and that's what we're all concerned about.

KELEMEN: One of the co-chairs of the quadrennial review, Anne-Marie Slaughter, would also like to see a new USAID administrator at the table soon. But she says one shouldn't read too much into the fact that it has taken this long to get someone in place. It's not just USAID that has a leadership vacuum.

Ms. ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER (Co-chair, State Department Quadrennial Review): Nobody doubts how seriously the administration takes the financial crisis and yet, Treasury has far fewer people in place than the State Department does. So it can't be that our priorities and the vagaries of appointing people to political position with all the vetting that - that takes place have to be a 100 percent aligned. I'd say, look instead at what we've been trying to do from the minute the secretary, you know, came into office.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton named a deputy that's supposed to keep track of development aid. She put her chief of staff in charge of coming up with a food security initiative, and Slaughter notes that the secretary has kept up a grueling travel schedule to places where development issues are key.

Ms. SLAUGHTER: Look at the trips. Look at, you know, the secretary going to India, going through Africa - and not just cosmetically going to Africa, really going to many different countries with big development challenges and making commitments about what we were going to do there.

KELEMEN: Ann-Marie Slaughter, who runs the policy planning office at the State Department, brushes off those who are worried that the Obama administration is concentrating aid programs on countries that are strategically important, like Afghanistan. She says Secretary Clinton is committed to development.

Ms. SLAUGHTER: Development and diplomacy are equal pillars of foreign policy. That's the secretary's premise, and I certainly hope it'll be one of her legacies that, actually, when we think about foreign policy, we think about solving problems from the top down, negotiating agreements with governments and working with other governments. But we also think about tackling problems from the bottom up.

KELEMEN: That is, fighting poverty, improving health and education, and promoting good governance. Brian Atwood, who was USAID administrator during the Clinton administration, is pleased to hear this sort of talk from the secretary and her staff.

Mr. BRIAN ATWOOD (Dean, Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota): But you know, all of those people are also really wrapped up in that - crises of the moment, the diplomatic side of the House. And so, it's very, very difficult without not just one political appointee or a presidential appointee as the head of AID, but there are 13 other positions that should be filled to really lead that agency to where it needs to be. And it really is a shadow of what it was.

KELEMEN: Sapped of resources over the years, Atwood says USAID is basically just a contracting agency now, and aid programs are spread across the government.

Mr. ATWOOD: It's a mess. It's not fair to the taxpayer, but I think more importantly, it's not fair to the poor of the world that we're not doing our bit.

KELEMEN: There are theories about why it's been so difficult to get someone on the job. One: that the State Department hasn't clearly defined how much autonomy the administrator will have. And two: that the vetting process has deterred some candidates.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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