Top U.S. Foreign Aid Official Steps Down

The head of America's foreign assistance agency, USAID, is stepping down after five tumultuous years on the job. Before leaving, Andrew Natsios fired some parting shots at the Bush administration for its approach to development.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.

Coming up, who's to blame for the Medicare mess?

But first, after five tumultuous years at the helm of America's foreign assistance agency, Andrew Natsios is leaving for a teaching job. His departure has sparked renewed speculation about the future of the US Agency for International Development. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Natsios certainly had his hands full at USAID overseeing US relief efforts after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan. He told NPR he lasted on the job longer than most aid administrators.

Mr. ANDREW NATSIOS (Retiring Administrator, US Agency for International Development): Very few administrators have gone through what I've been through with two wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and then the genocide in Darfur, the reconstruction of southern Sudan, the massive increase in spending in Africa, and now that we've just gotten money in the last few days to begin to set up defenses around the world against avian flu breaking out.

KELEMEN: That's not to mention the bureaucratic battles he fought and lost. The Bush administration's most high-profile aid programs were set up outside his agency. A new government corporation runs the so-called Millennium Challenge Account, a multibillion-dollar aid program to help countries that govern well, and the president put his HIV-AIDS coordinator in the State Department. Patrick Cronin, a former USAID official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the agency looks to be dying a slow death.

Mr. PATRICK CRONIN (International Institute for Strategic Studies; Former USAID Official): USAID continues to have the best expertise on development in the US government, and yet nobody will dispute that it's lost its primacy in development assistance some time ago. So what we've seen since the '90s is the strengthening of the State Department's policy leadership role in foreign development assistance. The Bush administration took that with a vengeance.

KELEMEN: Some development experts who want to see USAID remain independent and development assistance untainted by politics are worried the Bush administration will try to merge the agency into the State Department. Larry Nowels of the Congressional Research Service says it's something Republicans have tried before, in part because some distrust the bureaucracy, but there's also a new reason.

Mr. LARRY NOWELS (Congressional Research Service): Post-9/11 you had development added to defense and diplomacy as the three parts of the National Security Strategy that came out in 2002. And that also elevated the importance of development to US foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Andrew Natsios brushes aside questions about his bureaucratic battles, though he did offer some fiery parting shots when he addressed a group of democracy promoters this week. He released USAID's strategy to get in line with the Bush administration's democracy push and then complained that USAID doesn't control the budget in any of these areas anyway.

Mr. NATSIOS: You know, one of the most powerful things AID has done for 40 years and we're not doing anymore are scholarships to American universities. We went from 20,000 to 900 a year. You know why? Because we can't prove any immediate development impacts. So they keep saying, `This is a waste of money. Why are you doing this?' Bull (censored), OK? That's bull (censored).

(Soundbite of clapping)

KELEMEN: Natsios said the budget officials who want to see statistical proof that a program is working don't understand the business of long-term development. And he said congressional earmarks have tied USAID up in knots.

Mr. NATSIOS: Are the TV cameras still on? My heavens, I'm going to be in trouble, OK?

KELEMEN: The usually gregarious aid administrator was far more diplomatic in his departing interview with NPR. He talked about how USAID helped build a road in record time in Afghanistan, and he tried to give a more positive spin to one of his more recent projects, an attempt to raise private money for Iraq reconstruction. He blames a lack of media attention for the fact that the project has raised just $1,500.

Mr. NATSIOS: It isn't very much money, and the major reason is when we--I announced it in Michigan in a speech to the Iraqi-American community and none of the press releases were picked up by anybody. And the only way you raise money in the public sector, from the public, is to get people to understand what it is all about. We've done this before very successfully in other cases, but maybe because Iraq is controversial no one chose to report on it until very recently.

KELEMEN: Andrew Natsios, a former Massachusetts state lawmaker, says he looks forward to teaching at his alma mater, Georgetown University, and training students to go into development work. But it's not clear what sort of agency he leaves behind. The Bush administration is poised to announce ways to reform it as early as this month.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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