USAID’s PR problem

October 13, 2010

Foreign aid is a much cheaper way of conducting a country’s foreign policy than the military — and in many cases it can be much more effective, too. The Obama administration is very keen on this: a recent roundtable discussion on its new Global Development Policy, for instance, featured not only secretary of state Hillary Clinton but defense secretary Bob Gates and treasury secretary Tim Geithner as well.

At one point in the discussion, Clinton explained that the U.S. was running into an unexpected problem:

We have to fight to get the U.S. Government’s label on our material because a lot of our aid workers and our NGO partners are afraid to have association with the U.S. Government, whereas China, Japan, everybody else, emblazoned across all that they do, “Gift from the people of China,” that – “From the generosity of the people of Japan,” or you name it. So the American taxpayer is looking at this and saying, “We want to help those people. That’s a terrible disaster. But they don’t even want to admit that it’s coming from us?”

Philanthropy is a very public thing in the U.S.: if you give a lot of money to a certain cause, you can often demand your name emblazoned across it somehow. The problem is that when the US makes similar demands, it puts lives at risk. Here’s Rob Crilly:

if you were, say, a Western aid worker you might a few reservations about delivering goods with a nice red, white and blue logo with a row of stars and stripes on it…

Anyway this is what the good people at USAID are insisting on. Inevitably, charities tried to avoid displaying it too prominently – and maybe US officials were prepared to turn a blind eye – but that was until Richard Holbrooke visited and expressed his concern that the US was not getting sufficient credit for the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid being poured into Pakistan…

Such is the strong feeling among aid agencies that some – including, I understand, Oxfam – are prepared to give up millions of dollars in funding rather than risk more lives…

It is not a question of courage. The aid workers I know are aware of the risks they face. Many here in Pakistan here now knew Linda Norgrove, who was kidnapped and killed in Afghanistan. It is a question of knowing the limits of acceptable risks. Using a stars and stripes logo lies on the wrong side of stupid.

It’s one thing to espouse a generous foreign-aid policy on the grounds that you will ultimately do well by it in terms of domestic security. But it’s something else entirely to try to squeeze every last ounce of PR value out of that foreign aid, even if doing so puts the lives of aid workers at risk. (Many of them won’t even display their own logos in places like Afghanistan, let alone the stars and stripes of USAID.)

Let’s hope that Clinton and Holbrooke back down on their hard line here, especially since the value of the U.S. branding is so anecdotal and fluffy, while the cost is clear and harsh. It might not be particularly American, but sometimes the most noble kind of aid is the aid you’re not always rushing to take credit for.


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