A foreign assistance philosophy for an era of limited resources
By Carol Morello | AUGUST 14, 2017
The blown-up photograph in Mark Green’s office, still waiting to be hung, symbolizes everything the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development believes foreign development aid should strive for.
Taken almost a decade ago, when Green was U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, it shows a beaming woman with arms upraised. In her hand she clutches a certificate of recognition for finishing a U.S.-funded training course on how taxpayers can agitate for responsive local budgets. She had accepted it on bended knee, then leaped to her feet and screamed in joy.
“It dawned on me that she had never been empowered before,” said Green, who has kept the photo ever since. “This was the first time anyone had asked for her opinion. That summarizes my philosophy on development aid. We want to help people like this great lady do for themselves. She startled me and blew me away, and I realized I had learned more from her in that moment than a lot of other things.”
How much of a role the United States will maintain in programs such as the one in Tanzania is now largely in Green’s hands. The former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, who most recently headed the International Republican Institute, started work Monday as USAID administrator.
Green arrives as the Trump administration proposes lopping off almost a third of the budget of the State Department and almost 40 percent from USAID, a $10 billion cut, to $15.4 billion. Though Congress will probably not go along with such deep reductions, USAID’s funding level is almost certain to drop. And some in the White House question whether the agency should be merged into the State Department, even though they have different purposes.
Across the ideological spectrum, a lot of hopes are riding on Green’s shoulders. Aid organizations are relieved to have someone at the table who understands the purpose of foreign aid. Budget hawks are pleased to see the aid watched over by someone who demands results and efficiency. Green, who has worked in development aid for three decades, has a reputation for both.
“I believe the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist,” he told employees on his first day. “Each of our programs should look forward to the day when we can end it. And around the world we should measure our work by how far each investment moves us closer to that day.”
That is a philosophy Green says he spelled out when he met with President Trump in New York before the inauguration, and since then in several meetings he has had with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“Obviously, the fact that I’m here to me is a clear sign that the White House and the secretary are supportive of the approaches that I want to bring to assistance,” he said.
His biggest challenge, though, may be in arguing for foreign aid within the administration — compared with on Capitol Hill, where support for development assistance is broad and bipartisan. He acknowledged that some cuts will be needed and that aid deemed inefficient or ineffective may not survive.
“We have to find ways to do more with less,” he said. “We’re living in a time of limited resources. Part of the mandate, to me, is to make sure that we’re doing just that.”
If resources are limited, the needs are near historic highs. Four famines are emerging in Africa and the Middle East. A record 65 million people have been uprooted by poverty, drought and war.
Under the “America first” model embraced by the White House, more than two dozen countries receiving economic and development assistance would be dropped from the budget and the rest directed not to nations most in need but those deemed most critical to U.S. national security. Development aid advocates argue that their work contributes to national security, in the form of more stable and prosperous countries years or even decades in the future — a time span that can rob development projects of urgency at the moment of budget decisions.
Green thinks technology will help. He often cites the impoverished village in Kenya where he and his wife, Sue, spent a year teaching school in 1987. Today, the villagers do their banking on smartphones, opening new economic opportunities.
He wants to work more closely with the military in crisis zones, and reach outside the government to engage with aid groups and private businesses to figure out more cost-efficient ways to deliver assistance. But ultimately, Green will have to make some difficult choices.
Though he did not name specific programs that might lose government funding, Green said he will prioritize those that help a country build its ability to cope and progress in the future.
“The assurances I got when I spoke with the secretary was that there are no preconceived notions,” he said. “He’s not going into this, and I’m not coming into it, with a cooked plan. We feel good about the process that’s underway, laying out ideas for effectiveness, efficiencies and alignment. I think it’s going to end up in a good place.”