The commentary on a blog about making Afghanistan a “mini-USA” has struck on a topic of long term interest to me, USAID, or in full, the United States Agency for International Development.   I have both in my diplomatic and business incarnations had much contact with this agency and would point to a few characteristics of our main development effort.

First of all, I would point out that USAID is replete with RPCVs among its staff both home and abroad.  No surprise here since USAID is a natural next step for those who volunteered to help the less fortunate people of the world.  And Peace Corps experience is directly related to what one encounters in a career with USAID. 

Next I would mention my near career ending battle with my colleagues when as our Commercial Attache in Ankara, Turkey I argued long and hard that our development assistance could be used in a manner to both benefit the Turks and American business.  I was in Turkey during one of its darkest economic times since the formation of the Turkish Republic.  Things were so bad the Turks did not even have the foreign exchange to import coffee and thus there was practically no “Turkish coffee” available.  The most appreciated gift I could give was a pound of coffee brought in via my US government status. 

My point at the time was that our main assist to Turkey was the famous or infamous balance of payments support program under which we simply pumped foreign exchange, dollars, into the Turkish treasury to allow it to pay for vital imports.  At the time, and I believe even to this day, this cash payment program was the largest, if not dominant,  USAID program.   I recall once paying a call on the Turkish treasury to hand over a check for $2 million.  And believe it or not the Turks were given free choice in how to spend the funds with very little accountability other than to show that it was spent.   Needless to say, the balance of payments support program was the main channel for diversion of US funds to private bank accounts

My demand was that the funds should have been used to pay for imports from the USA and not from other countries. Thus the dual benefits, the Turks got balance of payment support and we got paid for our exports.  Granted we paid for them ourselves with the nominal promise of  the Turks repaying the balance of payments support in the future.  But as far as I can determine, there is no case in which this balance of payments support was ever repaid. 

My colleagues both at the embassy and in Washington beat me to death with the accusation of demanding “tied aid” which meant aid that can only be used to buy US products.  They refused to acknowledge that all other donor countries to Turkey were at that time “tying” their aid to their own exports.  More importantly, the US at that time was exporting much more to Turkey than our assistance could finance.  Therefore, the funds would have been fully used to provide balance of payments support.

Since my demand was totally rejected, the balance of payments support, including the checks I delivered, continued to be turned over to the Turks with no idea of how the funds would be used.  And believe me, many of the uses would cause even the most  sympathetic donor to shudder. 

My next USAID story came while living in Namibia as a “dependent” spouse.  My wife was at our embassy there and I was providing consulting services to several companies in Southern Africa.  The USAID team there invited me to do a financial and sustainability analysis of its main development project for Namibia.  The project was an environmentalist dream, improve land utilization by returning large tracts of land to those who formerly lived on them.  A main target here was to return people to the lands that had been placed into large nature reserves.  The theory was that those who had lived on the land for centuries were better able to use the land in sustainable ways.

Since much of the land was in nature parks USAID formulated the project with the Namibian agency that managed these parks.  I started my analysis by saying USAID had the wrong local partner for the project.  It should have been working with the Ministry of Agriculture instead of the park management agency.  I ended by saying, “this project promises to be an expensive exercise in bringing the Indians back to the buffaloes.”

Needless to say USAID Namibia was not happy with my analysis and got others to do further studies that eventually filled in the blanks to allow the project to go forward.  A year or so after leaving Namibia I read in the New York Times that USAID had to close its major undertaking in Namibia with the loss of $6 million.  You guessed it, the project was the one to ”bring the Indians back to the buffaloes.”

While I can go on with more stories about USAID, I do not mean to say that it has been a questionable undertaking.  On the contrary, I consider it to be the best development effort ever undertaken by any country.  I merely mean to suggest the extreme difficulty of implementing successful development programs.   And the wide diversity of opinions about how to go about this business.