Tales from the Trail

Senator to USAID: Stop your high-flying ways

April 20, 2010

An influential senator warned the official U.S. overseas aid agency: come down to earth with the impoverished people or see your funding cut.

QUAKE-HAITI/FRANCESenator 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.” USA-COURT/SOTOMAYOR

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)

Comments
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I am appalled at the insensitive and erroneous statements made by Senator Leahy to USAID Administrator Shah during the recent subcommittee on Appropriations hearing in which he described USAID employees as arrogant, elitist and detached. He claimed that we were living the high style in comfortable offices distant from the trenches writing self-serving reports in hard to understand jargon. This is not the USAID employee that I know after my 30 years as a Foreign Service Officer. How he came to that conclusion is a mystery to me because I doubt he has visited all 82 overseas missions and if he has, it was certainly as a VIP during a highly guarded staged program by Embassy staff.

The USAID experience that I know is living in very underdeveloped countries where your housing is substandard and in many cases dangerous with electrical outlets above your shower head, disease-ridden tap water, dangerous commutes to work in lawless traffic, armed guards at your grocery stores, and no possibilities for meaningful work for your well educated and credential spouse. I personally have contracted malaria and have been evacuated from country during an illness where no adequate medical facilities existed. My wife and son both contracted hepatitis A and other diseases we will never know for sure what they were.

Mr. Leahy has painted all of USAID with a wide brush and in the process insulted many of my colleagues and their families. If he can point out the specific examples of employees living in luxury, I will also condemn such extravagance. However, I doubt he has had a chance to witness the daily existence of the more than 700 USAID employees and their families overseas. I believe we all are owed a collective apology.

Francisco Zamora
American Foreign Service Association
Vice President (USAID)

Posted by fzamora | Report as abusive
 

With all due respect to Mr. Zamora, I think the Senator got it exactly right. I base that opinion on 34 years of working on development programs, 25 of which were with USAID. There are some very dedicated, hard working people in USAID, like Mr. Zamora. Far too many,however, are expensive drones that live a very comfortable lifestyle inside fortified bunkers. In the name of security they are cut off from the people they are supposed to be helping. This is true even in Washington, D.C. Try visiting the Ronald Reagan Building without a badge to see what the American people experience when they try to interact with an Agency they are funding.

Posted by USAIDVet | Report as abusive
 

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