Prior to my internship, many questions about the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) lingered. Some sources cited examples of well-intended development projects with adverse results. By reading Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, an account of Paul Farmer's public health work in Haiti, I learned about the eradication and failed repopulation of Haiti's peasant pigs to which USAID was a party. In my Introduction to Anthropology course at Babson College, one author painted USAID as an arm of the CIA and U.S. State Department. The author claimed that USAID covertly funneled money and military supplies to Laotian rebel groups (Quincy, 2000).
Despite some news stories, I am happy to say that I did not sense any sort of political agenda in my work. I can only attest to the earnest, one-pointed interest of my colleagues in implementing the most effective development programs. To further clarify the role of USAID and to provide context for my work in the U.S. Global Development Lab, I feel it is important to share the founding story and history of this federal agency whose aim is to end extreme poverty.
- International aid from the U.S. began with the Marshal Plan of 1948. This program focused on rebuilding infrastructure, strengthening economies, and stabilizing the political climate of the region.
- A few months later in 1949, U.S. President Harry Truman announced a technical assistance program for developing countries, the Four Point Plan. (Assistance to developing countries came as the fourth point in Truman’s inauguration speech. Interesting fact: the main conference room in the USAID offices at the Ronald Reagan Building is called the Four Points Conference Room.) Implementation for the Four Points Plan came under the responsibility of the U.S. State Department as USAID did not exist yet.
- It was not until 1961 under President John F. Kennedy that USAID was formed by the Foreign Assistance Act. Funding for foreign assistance ballooned. In many countries where USAID worked, Official Development Assistance (ODA) represented a substantial percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is interesting to note because USAID has had to adapt the way it works as ODA becomes an increasingly small percentage of GDP in developing countries.
- Since its creation, the Agency has changed its focus to adapt to global trends: from filling basic human needs such as food and nutrition to stabilizing local currencies, from creating robust market economic systems to rebuilding governments, infrastructure, and civil society in the Middle East following the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001.
- Today, USAID works in 100 countries. USAID has offices called "missions" in U.S. embassies of stable, developing countries. The Agency typically has the most funding at US Government embassies. The USAID budget request for 2016 is $22.3 billion or approximately one percent of the federal budget.
USAID is a unique, well-funded unilateral entity which has local staff in the majority of the countries it works in. These factors make USAID a key partner and thought leader in the international development arena. In fact, foreign international development agencies often co-fund USAID programs because of the Agency's trail-blazing work. For instance, my team managed the Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge for Development which was co-funded by the development agencies of Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa.
More facts about USAID.