Senator to USAID: Stop your high-flying ways
An influential senator warned the official U.S. overseas aid agency: come down to earth with the impoverished people or see your funding cut.
Senator Patrick Leahy said he was concerned that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had become “distant from the trenches,” sometimes more eager to deal with foreign elites than the suffering masses who had no voice.
Leahy’s opinion matters because he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budget for USAID, which the Obama administration hopes to transform into an important tool to boost the U.S. image abroad.
“There is a disturbing detachment between some USAID employees at missions overseas who spend much of their time in comfortable offices behind imposing security barriers, living in relative high style — and the impoverished people they are there to help,” Leahy told the agency’s administrator, Rajiv Shah.
“USAID needs to change its culture, and change the way it does business, if it wants the kind of money you are asking for,” Leahy said during a hearing on USAID’s budget request, which is roughly $21 billion for the fiscal year starting in October.
Shah told reporters after the hearing that he saw Leahy’s remarks as “comments of support” from someone who wanted to help make USAID “the primary development agency around the world.”
USAID has thousands of workers in 82 countries, and “the vast majority of our people are both hugely committed and make tremendous personal sacrifices,” Shah said. Some, as in Afghanistan, were “taking huge personal risks.”
But in some environments they did not have the security they needed to go out and review projects, contributing to a feeling of distance from the work. “In some situations that places us behind the fence when we don’t want to be there.”
Leahy told reporters he thought Shah, who has only been in his post a few months, would be able to make the needed reforms. The senator said he would give the agency time to change, noting it had taken a long time for USAID to get into the situation it was in, and Shah was new to his post.
The doctor and specialist in food security issues was named to head the aid agency as part of the Obama administration’s increased emphasis on development assistance. “We are lucky to have him. I’m amazed he took the job. He has a pretty clear mandate to make changes. I think he will,” Leahy said.
Photo credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria (woman carries rice from USAID in Haiti), Reuters/Joshua Roberts (Leahy at Senate hearing)