Should We Get Rid of the U.S. Agency for International Development?

by Julian Ku

My friend at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin, offers a fairly convincing critique of the effectiveness and efficiency of the U.S. Agency for International Development as its budget is taken up this week by Congress.

Take branding: Throughout the Middle East, especially in areas where anti-American sentiment is especially strong, the USAID refuses to put the USAID logo on its projects. To do so might lead insurgents to target USAID-funded schools, wells, or medical clinics. The problem is that skipping branding reduces to almost zero the benefit of the project. The goal of U.S. aid should not altruistic, but rather to bolster U.S. interests and influence. Diplomats talk about the need to win hearts and minds, but the multibillion dollar organization at the forefront of the battle too often surrenders before the fight. Nothing is more frustrating than to drive around Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing signs crediting Japan, Kuwait, the Badr Corps’ Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee for visible projects—gardens in traffic circles; housing projects; clinics; and electrical substations—but see no branding for USAID.

Compounding the problem is the fiscal irresponsibility of USAID. In Afghanistan, USAID would hire three times the local staff—drivers, cooks, and cleaners—instead of NGOs or contractors performing the same functions, and would spend more money on furniture, televisions, and equipment for offices. Rather than abide by the local market, USAID often would try to outbid contractors by offering landlords 300 percent more rent—a waste of taxpayer money that compounded itself as other U.S.-funded projects would have to keep up. Then, again, when the metric is money spent rather than results achieved, it’s easy to throw money around.

Rubin is not arguing against foreign aid, he is arguing against doing it through USAID.  Is it possible that the US is both cheap (in the amounts of foreign aid) and massively inefficient? Unfortunately, yes.

One Response

  1. I can’t speak to Iraq or Afghanistan specifically, but the statement that USAID avoids branding “[t]hroughout the Middle East” is wrong.  I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan and everything touched by USAID money is literally plastered with stickers, logos and signage reminding people that this copier or those desks or that health clinic or these computer systems were a gift from the American people.  In the town I lived in in south Jordan, for six months there was a billboard over the main street commemorating, in Arabic, 25 years of American support for workforce development through USAID.  The average Jordanian has heard of USAID; when Peace Corps volunteers tried to explain what we were doing there, people frequently jumped to the conclusion that we worked for USAID.  This is not to say that USAID efforts in hot conflict areas may not have tremendous problems, but the commentator undermines his own credibility by making a blanket statement about US-funded development projects in the Middle East that is obviously untrue to anyone who has spent time in the region.

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