Monday, January 11, 2010

What Rajiv Shah is up Against (One View from the Inside)

From what I hear, Rajiv Shah is an amazing individual who has what it takes to transform General Moto... I mean, USAID. Still, he has his work cut out for him. That, at least, is the conclusion I draw from this message I received yesterday from a colleague with current, and I expect accurate knowledge, of the situation at USAID, sent in response to my last blog post:
USAID has two main problems as I see it: insularity and ideological group think. These both sort of reinforce each other and bear on several of the practical problems of the agency such as the fact that much of the funding of the agency gets tied to "green development"--as if anyone actually really knows what that means, let alone how to achieve it--and environmental impact statements on development projects. What this really means is that we are going to be pushed out of development by the Chinese who clearly care more about the environment than do we (sarcasm intended).

DoD does not have its hands tied to the same extent as USAID does with all its externally imposed or, frankly, internally imposed, constraints: an accounting system reminiscent of the Army in 1940; a structure in the foreign service that cares more about how long you've been with the agency and who you've pissed off lately than the quality of your work, the projects you've completed, or what expertise you bring to the agency; and worse yet, a promotion system more concerned with time in grade than anything else.

Then of course, they pay talented people like [noun indicating insufficiency], and brown-nosing blow-hards like kings.

There are of course the normal obstacles, like the government's inability to fire incompetent people and a completely dysfunctional human resources division ... but hey, this is what everyone else seems to have to deal with.

The issue of insularity is a problem for the agency because it is completely hostage to the political left, which means it has zero supporters from anywhere else in the political spectrum. That puts the agency's survival in question and undercuts its ability to represent the US population at large--which, after all, is a primary role of a diplomat. The agency's precarious political position also affects it's ability to solve problems, as people on the inside approach things from the perspective of how best to hang on to USAID money rather than how best to accomplish the agency's mission and .... I am afraid, I don't think a new administrator is really going to change any of that.

On a related note, they could also use a real dose of facts about under which administrations and Congresses they have fared better or worse. There is a tendency to obsess about Republicans being their enemies, despite the fact that this technically isn't technically true, since most of the agency's downsizing happened under Clinton (not either Bush or Reagan), and their budget growth in recent years came almost entirely under a Republican president and Congress. This is completely lost on them.
My own view on this last set of points: One of the great things about the end of the Cold War is that it caused an implosion of ideology. If you wonder what this means, go to China (still think it's a "Communist" country? you are seriously missing the point), Vietnam, or India for that matter. Unfortunately, the political leadership in the United States is having a hard time catching up with this global reality. (Business leadership is doing better.)

The concern raised by my colleague here is just a case in point. The global transformation currently under way--what I term the coming prosperity--is far beyond anything that might be pegged as a "liberal" or "conservative" issue. If any of our nation's representatives overseas don't get that, they sure should.

No comments:

Post a Comment