John F. Kennedy inspired America with his big vision for a bold America. In his first year of office, President Kennedy established the United States Agency for International Development to serve as a beacon for freedom, a counterweight to the Soviet Union, and a model for newly independent nations breaking free from the bondage of colonialism. The agency soon became a respected leader throughout the world – serving as a lodestar of a powerful, generous, and influential America abroad.
That vision – and success – persisted for decades.
Then Donald Trump became president. Under his administration, the USAID has been practically irrelevant as a global thought leader, excluded from the White House COVID-19 Task Force, and beaten down at the staff level.
America cannot shape the next generation if it abandons the institutions and the values that gave rise to its strength in the post-World War II era. There are new challenges ahead, of course. The summer of 2020 highlights the risks. A global pandemic, massive wildfires in the West, and hurricanes in the southeast foreshadow the future for the U.S. and the world. Together, these threats present existential challenges, but also great opportunities.
To “get its swagger back,” in an ironic nod to Mike Pompeo, USAID needs a hard reset. USAID 2.0 will have to build dynamic global climate and health surveillance systems, unleash private capital and talent, innovate, and partner more effectively.
Donald Trump does not value USAID, but a Biden administration could re-vision USAID even while the country is climbing out of a failed COVID-19 response, a collapsed economy, extreme political partisanship, and massive debt.
First, USAID should build a Climate Resilient Early Warning System and Network (CREWSNET), modelled after its groundbreaking work in the mid-1980s to establish the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on long-range climate forecasting systems that would model the economic and social impact of climate effects to the ten square kilometer level – decades in the future – to help communities and nations mitigate or adapt to climate change. Understanding the future at local community levels will help sustain the political and economic steps necessary right now to alleviate suffering, reduce displacement, and minimize the risk of conflict later. FEWSNET provided forecasting for the next six to nine months, CREWSNET forecasts 20 years. These systems are a global common good, with immediate and direct benefit at home and abroad.
Second, USAID’s Power Africa, which fosters improved business climates, private sector investment, and sustainable power for millions, has provided more than 68 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with access to electricity. USAID 2.0 should build upon Power Africa to create a Climate Investment Fund that expands private sector solutions for renewable power, water, and sanitation by leveraging private capital markets, technology, and talent to African, Asian and Latin American markets to begin mitigating climate impact and creating a new century for American leadership, technology, and trade.
Third, Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator in the George W. Bush administration, recently proposed an infectious disease early warning system (PEWS) to partner with FEWSNET. As Natsios envisions it, PEWS would rely on satellite imagery, market data, animal health, and other data synthesized to predict and track early pandemic breakouts. Advanced global pandemic monitoring systems harvesting publicly available data could blunt the costs of the next pandemic for both the homeland and the world.
Fourth, humanitarian responses to complex emergencies and subsequent stabilization efforts in fragile or post-conflict countries are an increasingly large portion of the USAID budget. The operations, response, and results of these response efforts need to be “hacked” to better determine results and value. Expanding the use of target deconfliction through blockchain, deploying remote sensing including LIDAR, iris scans, mobile payments, RFID chips, electronic vouchers, low altitude air drops, drone technology, and reforming humanitarian operating systems could dramatically improve impact by improving access and delivery. Stabilization also requires independent scrutiny; the agency should initiate randomized controlled testing and longitudinal studies to assess the causal impact of community engagement, basic services, and donor assistance as a means of reducing conflict and promoting peace. Emergencies and conflicts are tough challenges – perfect problem sets for USAID 2.0.
Fifth, Raj Shah, former USAID administrator in the Obama administration, set up the Global Development Lab – an innovative idea that never really took root within the agency. The Trump administration appears to have downgraded innovation at exactly the time when it was most needed, during a once-in-a-century pandemic. USAID 2.0 requires that the agency go big on innovation. Consider that DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is responsible for some of the world’s most significant scientific and technological breakthroughs, including GPS, the internet, and stealth aircraft. There is no reason why USAID 2.0 cannot be the innovation leader in the civilian space to help solve some of the most pressing non-military existential threats of our time.
Finally, USAID and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should work more closely together for the benefit of both agencies. Because of the skepticism surrounding foreign assistance, USAID arguably operates with a higher degree of accountability than FEMA, responds to a wider range of disasters, and is more cognizant of the global link between foreign crises and their impact on the United States. FEMA, on the other hand, is able to tap into domestic resources and communities more deeply, which is essential for disaster response and risk reduction. Pandemics and climate effects, whether massive fires, droughts or hurricanes, would be natural starting points for a FEMA and USAID partnership.
The nation is facing increasingly diverse global risks. There is, however, enough room within existing budget levels to meet imminent existential challenges while retaining the inspiration of America that Kennedy so artfully envisioned when he established USAID in 1961.
R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.