Vacancy At Helm Of U.S. Aid Agency Spurs Concerns

The Obama administration has been reviewing U.S. aid programs around the world. A memo leaked recently suggests that it may bypass contractors and nongovernmental organizations and give aid directly to countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. That has many in the nonprofit aid community concerned — especially because the agency still has no appointed leadership.

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This week's debate over U.S. aid to Pakistan is part of a larger discussion. It's about the American dollars that go to diplomacy and foreign assistance. Officials are asking how to balance that cash against the vastly larger amount the U.S. spends on its military power.

Yesterday, at a meeting on development aid in Washington, the consensus was there can't be serious debate on this topic at all without a director for the country's main development agency.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It was well into a discussion about the Obama administration's commitment to development assistance when a former ambassador and aid official, Julia Chang Bloch, raised the concern that many in the hotel ballroom shared.

Ms. JULIA CHANG BLOCH (Former Ambassador): And I think an indication that USAID is a co-equal partner of State Department would be the expeditious nomination and appointment of a director...

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: She didn't even have to finish her thought before the audience broke out in applause. A top State Department official who's been co-chairing the Quadrennial Review on Diplomacy and Development, Anne-Marie Slaughter, said she, too, would like the aid position filled. She reassured the audience that whoever does get through the vetting process will have a strong voice.

Ms. ANNIE-MARIE SLAUGHTER (Director of Policy and Planning, Department of State): Let me just make very clear that the vision the secretary has is of a much stronger, much better resourced AID, and better integrated in the counsels of decision on every country.

KELEMEN: Such a voice could certainly help right now in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Samuel Worthington, president of InterAction, a coalition of more than 150 humanitarian organizations.

Mr. SAMUEL WORTHINGTON (President, InterAction): Not having an aid administrator to formally engage in a debate on the best approach to use in terms of our development strategy in Pakistan is a gap that we believe should be closed as soon as possible.

KELEMEN: He says one only needs to look at a memo by an economist at USAID, a memo that was leaked to USA Today. In it, the author raises concerns that the Obama administration's point person for the region, Richard Holbrooke, wants to bypass U.S. nongovernmental organizations and contractors and give aid directly to the Pakistani government or to local organizations that could have shaky financial records.

Worthington of InterAction says it's a fine goal, but misses a key point.

Mr. WORTHINGTON: The logic, sort of from a Washington point of view, makes a lot of sense. The reality on the ground is much different. Our community, which is the U.S. NGO community, works in Pakistan and employs 2,000 local Pakistan staff and maybe a handful of expatriates. The ability to get resources into remote valleys through local institutions is the strength of the international nonprofit community.

KELEMEN: Worthington says the U.S. should be using all the tools it can, not just funneling money through Pakistan's government, and it would've been helpful to have a USAID administrator make that more nuanced case. A State Department spokesman says that officials are considering adjustments in how to aid Pakistan, but not making any precipitous decisions.

More broadly, the Obama administration is talking about how to put development and diplomacy on par with defense. Nancy Lindborg of Mercy Corps says she was pleased to hear administration officials at yesterday's panel talk about that.

Ms. NANCY LINDBORG (Mercy Corps): There is mindboggling inequality or imbalance in terms of how we resource our defense capacities and how we resource our diplomacy and development capacities.

KELEMEN: Lindborg says changing that imbalance will improve the way the U.S. is viewed in the world.

Ms. LINDBORG: We are not only a military force. We are a force that is committed to all of the moral values that rest behind development and diplomatic solutions.

KELEMEN: She helped organize yesterday's discussion about the Obama administration's Diplomacy and Development Review. There, Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham acknowledged that USAID has become mainly a contracting agency that needs to find its way back to doing the kind of work it's done in the past.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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