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Rajiv Shah cries wolf

Imagine the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying that if defense funding were reduced, seven hundred thousand people in Libya would die, and tens of millions elsewhere in the world. It would be considered fear-mongering of the most repulsive kind. In fact, it would be considered a threat to the integrity of our civilian-led military to  attempt such a blackmail of the Congress.

But that's exactly the approach USAID Director Rajiv Shah took last week testifying before the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. He said that if proposed reductions to USAID's budget go into effect 70,000 children will die. He added that he considered that a very conservative estimate, and that among other effects, another 800,000 recipients of our international disaster assistance in Darfur would be at risk.

Shah testified that 30,000 deaths would come specifically from scaling back anti-malaria programs, 24,000 from lack of immunization, and 18,000 lack of skilled attendants at births. All this from cutting 16 percent of the Obama administration's international affairs budget request.  

Hard to say which is more offensive, Shah threatening Congress will have blood on its hands unless it continues to fund USAID programs, or the bureaucratic and cultural mindset that considers increased spending the only solution to a multivariate problem.

USAID was created as an entity separate from the State Department (and military assistance) in 1961, in order to remove from development assistance the taint of being provided in order to advance America's interests. USAID's official history rather unselfconsciously states that "It was thought that to renew support for foreign assistance at existing or higher levels, to address the widely known shortcomings of the previous assistance structure, and to achieve a new mandate for assistance to developing countries, the entire program had to be 'new.'"

The whiff of sanctimony pervades USAID still, which is part of why it is so unpopular on Capitol Hill, where elected representatives often find unpersuasive that the spending of their constituents money abroad should have no connection to our national interests.

Providing money through the Agency for International Development is by no means the only -- or even the most effective -- way to alleviate disease and poverty in the world. Case in point: funding for AID was dramatically cut in the 1990s, and yet that decade saw nearly a billion people lifted out of poverty by actual economic development. USAID's funding has been increased by 150 percent in the past decade -- most of that coming with the advocacy of a Republican president and his secretaries of state. 

There are many ways USAID could compensate for reduced government spending:

  • USAID could build coalitions of like-minded governments to share the burden of funding.
  • USAID could reach out into American society for private-sector partners to fund programs.
  • USAID could use its power as a convener and facilitator of non-governmental organization involvement in programs.
  • USAID could develop performance metrics that ensure it is using what money is available to greatest effect.
  • USAID could prioritize its own activity to close down programs of lesser immediate importance.
  • USAID could discontinue development projects in countries like China and Brazil that, as a result of their own economic development, are now providers of development assistance to others.

In fact, USAID's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review champions all these approaches. USAID just doesn't practice them.  

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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