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08 September 2021
USAID and the Transformation of Developing Countries
A Review of The Enduring Struggle – The History of the U.S. Agency for International Development and America’s Uneasy Transformation of the World, by John Norris

By A. Edward Elmendorf and Richard Seifman, Members, UNA-NCA Board of Directors

This is an important book for those who care about the world, and the role of the United States and the United Nations in our common future.  Commissioned by the USAID Alumni Association which instructed the chosen author, John Norris, to produce an independent and unvarnished assessment of American foreign assistance, both good and bad. The book does this and could not be more timely.

At this moment the United States is deeply emmeshed in two unfolding disasters, namely Afghanistan and Haiti, both of which have long histories of U.S. foreign assistance and USAID engagement.  U.S. leadership is being questioned and challenged at home and abroad, as is U.S. foreign assistance and in particular USAID. Given this backdrop, it is particularly fortunate that the current USAID Administrator, Samantha Power, is someone who is knowledgeable and has broad experience and vision, including past service as U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN.

In the book, Norris documents key achievements of USAID, including its pivotal roles in funding, generating, disseminating, and applying knowledge related to  maternal and child health, including oral rehydration therapy (ORT), Vitamin A, breastfeeding, as well as breakthrough research in agriculture leading to the Green Revolution.

For some readers, the journalistic tone of Norris’ book will be seen as a strength.  Missing was the more analytic approach of World Bank and UNDP publications, with graphs, charts, and boxed essays. That said, the book deals extensively, perceptively, and effectively with USAID’s major weaknesses and strengths.

One clear weakness - of USAID but not of Norris’ book - is the unpredictability of USAID long term program funding. It is subject to the vagaries of the Congressional authorization and annual appropriations process.  This presents a major constraint on client reliance, trust and effectiveness. For example, while AID may develop five-year programs with countries or regions, each year these are "subject to the availability of funds from Congress", sometimes with shorter-term Continuing Resolutions. From the recipient's perspective, this uncertainty reinforces a natural tendency for developing country leaders to stress the immediate because they cannot rely on U.S. multi-year commitments.

More broadly, Norris admits, at least implicitly, that U.S. foreign assistance has been dominated by domestic politics, domestic issues, and powerful economic interests. Indeed, “the Enduring Struggle” is replete with instances in which USAID has suffered repeatedly from being caught in the ups and downs of changing administrations and USAID Administrators. Beneficiary country perspectives have often been secondary. In today's world one might ask: What are the costs today in continuing in this manner? What and when do others do better in garnering more trust? In the increasingly complex donor and geopolitical world of today, can the US do better in its foreign assistance?

The current disasters in Afghanistan and Haiti inevitably raise questions about the United States role, and more specifically, that of USAID, in ‘nation building’– a concept that seems to have become so questionable in public discourse that it must be surrounded with quotation marks. While much of the Norris book deals with nation building in the broadest sense, it is striking that the term is not used in the manuscript and is not to be found in the Index.  Yet the concept underlies the book’s title – ‘the Enduring Struggle,’ and its subtitle ‘America’s Uneasy Transformation of the World.’  Such language tends to overstate the matter, yet the idea cannot be avoided. Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, Senegal and Ghana, must be seen as American success stories in nation building, and in each case, USAID played an important role. But USAID was also present in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt, overshadowed by military assistance and influence, to be sure. What is clear is that each country circumstance is different, but why and when the U.S. decides to intervene must be looked at in terms of past failures and success, and make hard judgements.

USAID started operations at the time of post-World War II independence of former colonies but long before the sweeping globalization of the late 20th century. Assumptions about what is needed, and presumptions have changed over time.  These will change over time, but nation building must be a continuing and responsible element of United States long-term engagement, especially not only in politically, economically, and socially fragile countries, but also in the wider world.

Norris observes that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were ‘transformative,’ as reflected in the subtitle of his book, but hardly discusses the MDGs and the U.S. important role in them. He gives some attention to the current and much more ‘transformative’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, he underscores the role of Obama Administration officials in their negotiation.

We wish Norris had given greater attention to the role played by USAID in international organizations. USAID has and continues to provide significant influence, funding, and guidance to the full raft of UN specialized bodies, including UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, WFP, UNHCR, UNFPA, and FAO. This has also been the case with respect to international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the regional development banks and specialized funds, where the Treasury Department leads the U.S. Government but USAID is a very active and critical contributor. Whether providing concepts, reviews, responses, or seconded personnel, USAID has also been a major contributor to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and its Development Assistance Committee (DAC). Indeed, USAID played a major role in its foundation, and in encouraging other countries to institute development cooperation programs and join the DAC.

Many of the key USAID players in “The Enduring Struggle” have long associations with UNA-NCA.  This could be a reason for UNA-NCA to organize a public forum stimulated by the book, if UNA-NCA program leaders are ready to take the initiative and organize such an event.