The derailing of the U.S. Agency for International Development

USAID’s capacity is on the cusp of crisis: Its staff is divided between veterans who are aging out and greenhorns, with too few in the middle. From the standpoint of national capacity, America has a development donut. And it’s a problem that so far has gone all but unnoticed by policymakers or the public.

Since 2009, USAID has witnessed about a 16 percent real drop in funding while its partner across the Potomac, the Pentagon, fought a successful campaign to limit decreases.

Over the last two decades, about one-third of USAID’s professional staff, according to the U.S Global Leadership Coalition, has gone away, leaving it more or less a contracting office for NGOs, who are fortunately doing much better aid work than before. But there’s only so much even they can do, given their likewise limited economies of scale — which is one reason a leading global power has an international development ministry to begin with.

At a briefing delivered at the National Defense University in April, USAID’s human capital and talent management staff reported that its agency has about 10,000 personnel total worldwide. Just fewer than 4,000 of these, however, are Foreign Service officers or civil servants — the professional core of the agency. The remainder consists of non-American subject matter experts making up approximately 80 percent of overseas staffing, in addition to contractors.

What really limits America’s capacity, however, to foster its long-term international standing and national security is a cavity of human capacity right in the middle of the organization. Over 50 percent of the agency’s professional workforce — its institutional memory — is now past retirement age. Over 70 percent of the remainder has less than five years of experience. That means a serious shortage of seasoned staff in a middle management mode — and a dearth of future, seasoned senior leaders.

USAID has made significant strides in effectiveness, and doing a better job of demonstrating return on investment, as its annual performance reports have shown since 2007. There are still improvements to be made, but despite those made so far, Uncle Sam’s development arm is still atrophying. Not that anyone seems to care.

[Excerpts of Foreign Policy article]

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