Making Aid Great Again: The Restructuring of USAID

Early in his tenure as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson asserted that the reorganization of USAID and the State Department would be his priority. The secretary seems to be considering rolling USAID into the the State Department. Employees of both agencies would resist this move. This is because of the differences in the mission and culture of the two agencies, and their current structure.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, © 2004, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, © 2004, some rights reserved


Currently, USAID is its own agency, although it does not equal the State Department’s or Defense Department’s status. USAID is an independent government agency, but takes foreign policy guidance from the President, Secretary of State, and the National Security Council. The head of USAID is not a member of the cabinet as the Secretary of State is, and is therefore often seen as part of or aligned perfectly with the Department of State even though this is not the case.

Differences begin at the structural level. The Department of State is a bureaucratic behemoth that considers the consequences of its actions four or five steps down the line, whereas the delivery of aid has and should continue to be nimble on the frontlines. For the State Department, aid can be seen as a tool or bargaining chip for the propagation of US foreign policy, but for USAID, development and aid are ends in themselves.

This year, Tillerson conducted an employee survey of the two agencies to see what his employees thought of restructuring USAID. This past month, he submitted the first part of his proposal, in which it is reported that he recommends merging the objectives of the two agencies. He claims that the merging of objectives will save the agencies 10 million USD (7,538,000 GBP) in the future. If this is the case and his proposal goes through, those savings may be at the cost of the independently powerful missions of diplomacy and aid.

The report created by Tillerson’s survey listed many recommendations to frame the restructuring of the agencies. These recommendations generally fell into three categories: the structure of aid, human resources, and shared services. The recommendations made in the structure of aid category support the idea that the culture of the two agencies is different, with employees of USAID having a more clear vision of their mission and an aversion to merging with the State Department. Employees of USAID also complain about the increasing layers of State Department-esque bureaucracy that does not suit the dynamic agency.

The second category of human resources recommendations center around one idea – bringing both the State Department and USAID internal systems into the modern era. This requires different methods for the two agencies, due to the variations in recruiting content experts or generalists. This is a common complaint throughout government, and is not a surprising recommendation.

The third category of recommendations has to do with shared services such as security clearances and sharing resources. Both departments are structured similarly, even though they have different primary objectives. These different objectives often have overlapping or advisory aspects to them and because of this, it makes sense that things like security clearances for the State Department should still be valid in USAID and vice versa.

Regardless of a potential merger, these three categories of recommendations should be employed to increase State Department and USAID efficacy. However, the primary change should be to end the uncertainty regarding the future of aid and diplomacy in the US foreign policy. This administration has recommended huge cuts to these functions of foreign relations and this is an immense mistake. Foreign aid is the one of the most effective ways to solidify The United States’ position and security worldwide. Even people on the Department of Defense have spoken in defense of the State Department and foreign aid, such as Secretary of Defense Mattis who testified to the Senate, ‘If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately.’

Tillerson should heeds these recommendations included in the report. However, there is much more he can do in order to make USAID as effective and efficient as possible. In addition to the recommendations from his report, one major step would be elevating USAID to cabinet level by affording the head of USAID a Secretary title and a place in the President’s cabinet. If this is done, and USAID is still afforded its nimble and grassroots-focused structure it will increase the clarity of the differences of mission between the two agencies and give USAID an opportunity to operate completely independent from diplomacy missions. The funding of this creation of a ‘new’ fully functioning agency could be found by decreasing the budget of the Department of Defense, which would benefit in the long-term from a robust foreign aid delivery structure.