WASHINGTON-The two top senators on the Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to President Obama recently wondering when USAID is going to have a leader. The federal agency, which provides aid globally, is one of the only major agencies that President Obama has left without nominating someone to lead it.
"Despite a greater need than ever worldwide for strong U.S. development leadership-including two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq-we have yet to receive a nominee from the administration," wrote Sens. John Kerry, the Democratic chair of the committee, and Richard Lugar, the top Republican, in a Sept. 18 letter to the president. "We urge you to nominate an administrator for USAID expeditiously."
Paul Farmer, a Harvard University professor who has worked in international health, was thought to be the frontrunner for the post but withdrew from consideration and now is serving as a deputy to former President Bill Clinton in his role as UN special envoy to Haiti. Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development and formerly at the World Bank, is someone the aid community has floated as another possibility.
Since the rash of tax troubles plagued nominees in Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year, the White House has been much slower in vetting and putting forward nominees. President Obama is now well behind former President Bush's pace of nominations: By this time in 2001, Bush had filled about 400 of his top posts, and Obama has picked about 300, according to The Washington Post. Time is running out for the Senate to confirm nominees before they enter recess again in October.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boiled over with frustration about the empty positions-USAID in particular-in July, calling the vetting process a "nightmare." When asked why there was no USAID head she responded, "Let me just say it's not for lack of trying."
Last week, in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the implications of failure in Afghanistan, Sen. Lugar voiced his concern again that the USAID administrator was not in place, saying he was "troubled" because development is so central to the U.S. mission there.
USAID is at a pivotal moment not only because of its work in places like Afghanistan, but also because Congress and the State Department are working on reforming and redirecting the distribution of foreign aid. Lugar, Kerry, and several other senators have introduced the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act, which is designed to strengthen and reform USAID. Congress has directed more and more funds to aid-for health programs in Africa, for schools in Gaza, for infrastructure in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the State Department is in the middle of its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which includes reevaluating policy on aid. The National Security Council is reviewing policy on foreign aid, too. Those reviews could lead to recommendations that USAID be folded into the State Department, or that it be given more independence. Without a leader for USAID, no one has the task of setting these priorities at a moment when its identity is being redefined.