The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance—OFDA as it is known universally—is the department within the U.S. Agency for International Development that specializes in emergency relief, whether immediately, in response to natural disasters, or with long-running crises that have created large numbers of refugees or internally displaced people. Established more than 40 years ago, OFDA now has annual budget of $1.03 billion, which, while it is only a little more than 5 percent of the total USAID budget, makes it by far the best-funded emergency relief agency in the world. From Cyclone Nargis to the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, and from the tsunami to the floods in Pakistan, OFDA relief teams are usually the first U.S. government representatives on the scene. And whether one believes that the way Washington offers humanitarian assistance is idealistic or self-interested (in fact, it is probably a mix of both), and however one judges the effectiveness of this aid, even USAID’s severest critics and the American empire’s most unreconciled foes would not deny that the people who work at OFDA are superb practitioners.
At her Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that American foreign policy was based on three ‘D’s’—defense, diplomacy, and development—and that, if her nomination was approved, she would be in charge of two of them. And in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, the secretary said that while she was determined to make USAID the world’s premiere development agency, the Obama administration would not be pursuing “development for development’s sake,” but rather because of the contribution it makes to international peace and security. Given this emphasis on development and relief as essential to the successful conduct of American foreign policy and to winning the war for ‘hearts and minds’ in the battle space of the long war against the jihadis from the Horn of Africa, where USAID works in coordination with the U.S. armed forces’ Africa Command, to Afghanistan, where US development and relief efforts are largely run through the so-called provincial reconstruction teams in which the military, State Department diplomats, and USAID officials work in tandem, it would be logical to assume that the Obama administration would have made it a high priority to strengthen OFDA, which more often than not is the point of the spear in such efforts, and is never less than an integral part of them.
Instead, it has neglected and thus gravely weakened it. As of now, that is 19 months since President Obama’s inauguration, the post of OFDA director remains vacant. It is being run on an interim basis by Mark Ward, a USAID official of long experience who went on to work for the United Nations in Afghanistan before returning. Ward is a very able man, but, to put the matter bluntly, OFDA needs more than competence and commitment. For its success has been due in considerable measure to the fact that, over the decades, it has been run by some of the most important, influential, and admired figures in the relief world, notably the late Julia Taft, later head of Interaction, the coalition of U.S. relief NGOs; H. Roy Williams, who led the International Rescue Committee’s overseas operations brilliantly for many years; and Andrew Natsios, who played a similar role at World Vision, and eventually became President George W. Bush’s USAID administrator.
This negligence—there is no other word for it—is in large measure due to the fact that Secretary Clinton has not yet decided where USAID should be located within the State Department bureaucracy. The likeliest scenario is that USAID in particular, and Washington’s development efforts generally, including the new global-health and food-security initiatives, will be further integrated with the State Department’s overall policy requirements. Advocates for the global poor are extremely worried about this. One of the most distinguished of them put the matter succinctly and, in my view, unarguably. If, he said, “the same dollars are supposed to serve short-term U.S. security and diplomatic interests and also support the kind of development that reduces poverty, poor people will almost always get the short end of the stick.”
One cannot begrudge Secretary Clinton her power play; after all, it goes with the territory in Washington. But in the case of OFDA in particular, and USAID generally, these institutional interests have been allowed to override national interests, whether one is talking about humanitarianism in the classical, disinterested sense, as in Haiti, or in the 'hearts and minds' sense, as in Pakistan. It would have been one thing had the USAID administrator they finally nominated—on November 10, 2009, that is, a full year after the election—been someone with real expertise in emergency relief. But while Dr. Rajiv Shah, formerly of the Gates Foundation, where he was deputy director of its global-health programs and subsequently of a major agriculture initiative ($3 billion over ten years) is an able man, he has no expertise, let alone experience of any consequence, with emergency relief. Those chickens soon came home to roost. Shah was confirmed in early January, 2010. A few days later, Port-au-Prince had been leveled by the earthquake.
At least the geopolitical consequences of that disaster were negligible, so Shah’s lack of experience in working with the armed forces to combine civil relief and development efforts with kinetic military operations was of little importance. And yet it should not have taken the Pakistan floods to demonstrate that, given the fact that the Obama administration shares the Bush administration’s view that development and relief must be part of the war effort in conflict zones of the Long War, either the USAID administrator needed relief experience, or there needed to be an OFDA director who had it, appointed at the same time.
During the question-and-answer period after the briefing he gave in late August at the Foreign Press center in Washington, Shah conceded that he had not thought relief would be his main focus when he assumed his post. He recalled that a former USAID administrator had told him that he would be surprised by the amount of time he would have to spend on emergencies. “I thought that he's probably wrong about that in my case,” Shah recalled, “because I'm going to be very focused [on development].” But, he added, USAID was on top of things. The Pakistan floods, he said, ‘showcased’ what “USAID could do when we need to move fast,” and he went on to single out for praise the work of a disaster assistance response team. Perhaps he thought it too obvious to emphasize but these so-called DART teams are part of OFDA.
Others are not as confident as Shah that OFDA is in such good shape. Ky Luu, a vastly experienced relief official who was himself George W. Bush’s last OFDA director, before going on to found the Disaster Resilience Training Academy at Tulane, reported being absolutely “stunned” that no OFDA director had been named, adding that this lack of leadership was extremely bad for morale in the field.
When they are criticized for having left so many posts vacant, Obama administration officials routinely defend themselves by pointing to the difficulty of the nominating process in the current polarized and rancorous political climate. They have a point, though this does not explain why they were so slow in nominating Don Steinberg, formerly of the International Crisis Group, for deputy administrator, Mercy Corps’ Nancy Lindborg for assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance (the boss of the OFDA director), and Nisha Desai Biswal, a senior staffer for New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey for assistant administrator for Asia (“a region where a few things are happening these days,” as a friend of mine at one of the mainline NGOs said pointedly)—first-rate appointments all. But the director of OFDA does not have to be confirmed by the Senate. He or she could have been appointed by the administration at any time over the course of the past 19 months. Of course, given Shah’s lack of emergency experience, an OFDA director should have been named at the same time he was nominated to run USAID.
Given all of this, it is hard not to conclude that either the Obama administration simply is not serious about what they say they want to do, or they simply cannot bring themselves to face the fact that their focus on bureaucratic arrangements had led them to commit a serious blunder.
For all their fine talk (and some of the administration's proposals—notably on global food security—are promising), the bureaucratic decisions, or, rather, 'non-decisions' they've made almost certainly doom these initiatives to having relatively marginal effects. Obviously, there is a difference between talk and action in every presidency, but this is really too much.
David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.