How to Fix USAID

A broken aid agency helps no one. Instead of throwing development projects at the military, the US should put effort into fixing the aid agency's problems.
Glenn Zorpette, the executive editor of I.E.E.E. Spectrum, wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times yesterday about the challenges the United States Agency for International Development faces trying to provide electricity. He focuses on the challenge of building a 105-megawatt diesel power plant near Kabul. The plant is badly over budget, poorly run, and too expensive to operate given the high cost of diesel fuel (electricity imported from Uzbekistan is cheaper).

But, while Zorpette's critique of USAID's inability to run efficient contracts is perceptive, his solution is not:

What to do? Turn the projects over to the Army Corps of Engineers. It has performed better than U.S.A.I.D. on electrical projects in Afghanistan; it is less hobbled by politics; it has experienced engineers. It's critical that this happen soon, because the Corps can expect to be withdrawn with the rest of the Army, even if the timetable isn't set.

While this has the surface appeal of shifting resources to an agency that can "just get things done," and while Zorpette kind of briefly mentions the problems with militarizing aid, this still is a terrible idea. The phrase "hobbled by politics" leaps out, as if the DOD is not also hyper-aware of the politics of its operations (at least, within the U.S.) or as if there are no political issues within the governments of either the U.S. or Afghanistan to be considered when beginning a massive construction project. But in addition, on a very basic level, Zorpette is falling into the same trap that has the Defense Department running a $150 million program to develop small businesses: he is confusing expediency for effectiveness.

Zorpette believes it is the lack of electricity, and not, say, the behavior and strategy of the troops under the command of General Petraeus, that has stalled out the quest to "win hearts and minds" (which isn't even a U.S. goal anymore). You reach that conclusion if you have a very narrow focus on certain kinds of aid projects. You can also reach that conclusion if you labor under the mistaken impression that aid projects result in good counterinsurgency. They do not.

Another problem with Zorpette's model of throwing everything to the military because you need to get it done right now is that the military isn't all that good at this stuff, either. Much as he lauds the US Army Corps of Engineer's ability to build small generators for Afghans, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the contracting oversight subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, recently questioned in a hearing why the military is even involved in such schemes.

McCaskill focused on the Pentagon's payments of $40 million for imported diesel fuel to power generators in Kandahar city, $86 million for power transmission between the cities of Chimtal and Gardez, and $20 million for provincial justice centers, all from the new fund. [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Central Asia David] Sedney said the commanders determined that battlefield success required "certain economic inputs," and quickly supplying electricity for Kandahar was one of them.

While it would be easy to lay into Mr. Sedney for his remarks, this speaks to the same flawed assumptions that animate Mr. Zorpette's op-ed about how bad USAID is. First of all is the belief unique to the DOD that economic outputs result in battlefield success. But the second is that to service a short time frame, the DOD must overtake civilian agencies to get a quick fix in place to show immediate results.

The consequences of such short term thinking are legion, and present at all levels of U.S. strategy (I've written of another way this mindset has a pernicious effect on military operations for The Atlantic). It leads the Army to build diesel generators in Kandahar, then spending millions of dollars for fuel subsidies because the Afghans can't afford to run them. Sure, there's no hope of those generators functioning once the Army leaves, but it gets to take credit for "bringing electricity" to the city! Victory forever!

But this whole situation also masks a much deeper problem with how the country as a whole approaches foreign policy. Noting that USAID is dysfunctional, and it is, is appropriate. But responding to that dysfunction by transferring its duties to the DOD, while still funding USAID, is absolutely bonkers. At least the GOP was being, in some small bizarre way, honest when they tried to slash USAID's budget earlier this year: if the DOD is doing it anyway, there's no need to fund a civilian agency to replicate that task in a less efficient way.

The real way you fix a dysfunctional USAID is by actually fixing USAID. Very few people would argue the agency is as effective, or as efficient, as it could be. But the way you make USAID an effective, efficient agency is by changing USAID so that it becomes more effective and efficient: hiring more direct staff, ditching the messy and counterproductive reliance on projects, investing in strategic design, hiring a competent contracting management team, and so on (these are guesses, there are obviously other ways to improve the agency's workings). You do not fix USAID by giving the DOD more money and telling its soldiers, who are not trained, to then execute complicated infrastructure and economic and governmental development projects.

I hope the era of militarizing U.S. foreign policy is peaking, that over time it will become less common and more shocking to see a casual wave of the hand, saying "meh, if a set of laws don't work just have the military do it, they're easier." While we may congratulate ourselves at getting things done faster, it is actually the least efficient way of doing so, rather than fixing the actual problem, it just adds a new layer of bureaucracy, of organization, and capability on top of an already dysfunctional system.

Fixing USAID should be a priority for the government and the policy community, regardless of the party or politics involved. A broken aid agency helps no one, whether the recipients of their projects or the people back here who fund it and expect returns on expenditure. The worst thing we could do to USAID would be to tell the Defense Department to perform more aid functions. Let the military fight wars. If our civilians cannot rebuild after, then let's teach them how. Demanding soldiers fight, rebuild, and rule afterward is not a healthy foreign policy; it is an imperial one.

Image: Eliseo Fernandez/REUTERS