Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"The concept of development is to try over time to make the world a better place for all of us to live, and that is an American interest."

Helping Others in the Age of Trump

Eight questions for Brian Atwood

Senior Fellow Brian Atwood, a former director of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) recently sat down for a Q&A to offer his insight into the United States’ mission for humanitarian and development aid. 

Q: What is the overarching goal of USAID around the globe and how does such a mission reflect on the United States’ international reputation?

A: There are two aspects. The development function is helping others to help themselves, which could be on any aspect of society’s well being, from social issues like health and education to governance issues. It’s the entire breadth of what a government needs to be a healthy, democratic government. The humanitarian side is relief, saving lives. We now have 66 million people who are dislocated because of conflict or natural disasters, more than ever before.

Q: What role does USAID play when responding to a humanitarian crisis, such as the recent hurricanes that struck the Caribbean?

A: It’s very complicated. USAID has worked with the United Nations to develop protocols which enable people to respond more efficiently when there is a disaster. They will map out the region and say, “The British will handle this” or “The UN relief organizations will handle another part.” USAID usually sends a disaster relief team (DART) to assess the situation, plan what is needed, and ask the president to bring in the military to clear roads and ports so goods and services can be provided.

Q: How do USAID’s efforts for international development differ with its humanitarian mission?

A: The humanitarian function is short-term, while in development, you are partnering with governments and NGOs working on the ground permanently. There are 110 “missions,” or offices, around the world where USAID employees live and work with local government and ministries. Only 10 percent of USAID employees are American; the rest are Foreign Service nationals. They know the country, and that is an invaluable asset.

Q: What misconceptions do you feel the American public holds regarding international development and humanitarian aid?

A: Americans are traditionally quite impatient. Members of the House of Representatives are only elected every two years and, if they want to sponsor a project, they would like to see something done right away. But you don’t transform a school system, for example, in two years. That is not the way development works. It is a partnership that takes longer, over a decade or more. The concept of development is to try over time to make the world a better place for all of us to live, and that is an American interest.

Q: Is there a country you would consider to be a successful project in terms of USAID-backed development?

A: Ghana is a good example of an African country that has become a lower middle-income country from being a very poor country. It has had three to four successful elections in a row and a peaceful transfer of power. It is an accountable, democratic government. That is important because if governments are accountable to the people, they tend to make sure that the people are satisfied with what the government provides. A lot of the countries that were terribly poor are now in the middle-income category, and they have become trading partners of the U.S.

Q: You served as USAID administrator under the Clinton Administration from 1993-1999. How has the agency’s role changed within the U.S. government and international community since you were in charge?

A: During my tenure, I had to really fight for resources. The Clinton Administration was one of the first that came out of the Cold War, and there was a huge cutback in spending and resources, what they called the “peace dividend.” Today, there is much more bipartisan support for this concept of the three D’s: defense, diplomacy and development. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who is now chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee had been asked by the Trump Administration for huge cuts in USAID. He put almost all of it back. Secretary of Defense Mattis recently said, “If USAID and the state department are not funded, you have to give me more weapons.”

Q: President Trump has already angered the international community by not immediately waiving the Jones Act to allow foreign carriers to Puerto Rico, and also withdrawing from UNESCO by 2018. Do you believe the President’s actions hinder our international development mission?

A: I think that the “America First” approach is a message that is probably well received by authoritarian governments around the world, but not necessarily by those who believe in collective action. There will be a lot more suspicion of what USAID’s motives are, but fortunately Trump has named former Wisconsin congressman Mark Green to head the agency. I think his ideas for what he wants to do with USAID are very positive, and because of support from Congress on a bipartisan basis, USAID will continue to get the resources to do good work.

Q: In a recent Foreign Affairs article, you argued for establishing a cabinet office representing USAID. How would that enhance its mission?

A: It helps to have the voice of long-term development at the table where decisions are being made about foreign policy. For example, you are sitting around the cabinet table and the agriculture secretary says, “We need to provide much more assistance to American farmers so that we can sell our products internationally cheaper.” That is a distortion of development because you are not allowing developing countries to improve their own agriculture sector. But who is going to say that? If you are a cabinet officer representing USAID, you may not win the argument, but if you are not there, you can never make the case.


J. Brian Atwood is a senior fellow of International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute. From 2010 to 2012, he served as chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He had earlier served as under Secretary and Assistant Secretary of State and was the first President of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). He has published numerous articles on foreign affairs and international development, most recently in the Washington Post and the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. 

-- Shaun Kirby