The State Department laid out an ambitious budget for the forthcoming year and, on Wednesday, Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, held a hearing to discuss U.S. assistance. Among those testifying was Mara Rudman, the assistant administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle East bureau. While Rudman might brag about the supposed achievements of USAID, few aid organizations are so inefficient and self-defeating.
Take branding: Throughout the Middle East, especially in areas where anti-American sentiment is especially strong, the USAID refuses to put the USAID logo on its projects. To do so might lead insurgents to target USAID-funded schools, wells, or medical clinics. The problem is that skipping branding reduces to almost zero the benefit of the project. The goal of U.S. aid should not altruistic, but rather to bolster U.S. interests and influence. Diplomats talk about the need to win hearts and minds, but the multibillion dollar organization at the forefront of the battle too often surrenders before the fight. Nothing is more frustrating than to drive around Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing signs crediting Japan, Kuwait, the Badr Corps’ Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee for visible projects—gardens in traffic circles; housing projects; clinics; and electrical substations—but see no branding for USAID.
Compounding the problem is the fiscal irresponsibility of USAID. In Afghanistan, USAID would hire three times the local staff—drivers, cooks, and cleaners—instead of NGOs or contractors performing the same functions, and would spend more money on furniture, televisions, and equipment for offices. Rather than abide by the local market, USAID often would try to outbid contractors by offering landlords 300 percent more rent—a waste of taxpayer money that compounded itself as other U.S.-funded projects would have to keep up. Then, again, when the metric is money spent rather than results achieved, it’s easy to throw money around.
It’s time for USAID to do some real soul-searching about whether the organization does anything that smaller, leaner NGOs can’t do cheaper and better; whether they get bang for the taxpayer buck; and whether a failure to seek credit where credit is due undercuts their utility to U.S. foreign policy. If there’s one organization that’s in serious need of reform, USAID is it.