Spotlight: USAID

Since its heyday in the Kennedy Administration more than half a century ago, nonmilitary foreign aid has had detractors and defenders in roughly equal measure. On the con side, critics urge that money spent building power plants in some tropical nation across the ocean would be better spent mending broken infrastructure here at home. On the pro side, champions of aid hold that it’s an inexpensive investment to secure friendship—and with it access to resources and future markets—while at the same time performing humanitarian service, doing well, in other words, by doing good.

In 1961, early in his term, President John F. Kennedy created the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as an omnibus vehicle for delivering foreign aid, supplanting several smaller agencies created in the first and second terms of his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. USAID was first housed within the State Department. It has since evolved into a nominally independent agency under the authority of the executive, although it coordinates closely with State—and an estimated third of USAID staff come from the Foreign Service, itself housed under State. USAID also coordinates with other departments and agencies, including Commerce and Agriculture, as well as the National Security Council.

In the bargain, USAID has evolved from a catchall foreign-aid clearinghouse to an agency that, in the words of an informal mission statement, works primarily “to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.” In that work, USAID efforts are almost always government-to-government, providing direct financial assistance as well as expertise. Recent USAID initiatives include the eradication of tropical diseases, the development of projects to encourage renewable energy sustainability, and disaster-relief training. Always, the emphasis is on local solutions, with a preference given to hiring local workers whenever possible, though supplemented and trained by American experts in such things as energy production, agriculture, and public health.

As of FY 2015, the annual budget of USAID was $35.6 billion. A recent Government Accountability Office review of USAID found that the agency was effective and responsible in handling funds allocated to it for assistance purposes, though, as is so often the case, it also held that the agency could stand to improve its standards for measuring the progress and performance of the projects it sponsors. Of particular importance have been efforts to curb funds falling into the hands of corrupt foreign officials or, worse, terrorist organizations. A pilot “Partner Vetting System” is now being tested to enhance the agency’s due diligence practices.

USAID has grown substantially over the years, with headquarters in Washington, regional centers in the United States, and scores of outposts abroad, most of these last located in embassies. At present, it has about 4,000 career employees, housed under both the federal civil service and Foreign Service, and several hundred short-term contract employees. So large is it that offices are scattered across the District of Columbia and neighboring Arlington, Virginia; the agency’s large global health bureau, for instance, moved to Crystal City from Washington proper in November 2014, its 500 employees forced to leave the Ronald Reagan Building during large-scale renovations. As of March 2016, the agency’s plan is to centralize in two buildings: the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, and a building yet to be acquired through lease.

Though USAID has independent leasing authority granted through Section 636 of the through the Foreign Assistance Act, it has self-imposed limitations to its ability to exercise this authority. Most notably, it will acquire space only when no suitable GSA-controlled property is available and it is more efficient or cost-effective for USAID to do so. Perhaps this explains why GSA is now leading the effort to acquire a 355,000 RSF lease in the District of Columbia with occupancy slated no later than May 2020. This lease will consolidate USAID staff who are currently located at 400 C Street SW, Washington, DC; 2100 Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA; and 2733 Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA.