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Nancy Birdsall
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The president and the secretary of state have promised to elevate and strengthen U.S. global development policy in our national interests. In Haiti there is an opportunity to make that promise real–building on the generosity of the American people and the inherent organizational capability of our government. Getting immediate relief to the earthquake’s victims is the critical issue right now. But how we do it matters for the long-term stability of Haiti, the U.S. image abroad and our larger foreign policy interests. Unfortunately, the situation today is highlighting the fissures in the U.S. management of development programs that could put our development goals and leadership at risk in Haiti and beyond.

What do we mean? In Haiti, all three U.S. foreign policy tools -- defense, diplomacy and development -- in the form of officials and staff of the Department of Defense, Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are front and center in the news and on the ground. But who is in charge? We see the situation in Haiti as requiring above all leadership from the development side. While the U.S. role in places like Iraq and Afghanistan blurs the lines between development, defense and diplomacy, and who should be in the lead, the earthquake in Haiti demands primarily a development and humanitarian response. Of course there is a role for the military in orderly provision of security and in logistical operations -- those helicopters for instance. But it is a supporting role to a civilian-led effort as my colleague John Simon points out, and we argue a role best led by development professionals at USAID.

Reports like the one in Newsweek that argue the Pentagon is the only U.S. national security agency capable of responding in Haiti have got it wrong. Tom Mahknen at FP wisely calls this “the competence trap” where the military becomes the responder of first resort, in large part because we have invested time and again in a capable and nimble military, but shortchanged and constrained the diplomatic and development aspects of U.S. national security. Haiti is a reminder of the real and urgent need to invest in the other tools of U.S. national security. Meanwhile USAID is still, despite its decline in budget and staffing in the last 15 years, the agency with the mission and yes the expertise to lead the U.S. response. And as former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios said yesterday, the U.S. role in disaster response has been managed successfully by USAID year after year in dozens of small as well as huge disasters.

President Obama smartly signaled the central role of development in the U.S. government response the morning after the earthquake when he designated newly-confirmed USAID Administrator Raj Shah “our government's unified disaster coordinator.” And in the face of growing concern about whether Dr. Shah is actually leading the response in Haiti, it’s good that State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in response yesterday: “Who’s running this operation? It’s Dr. Raj Shah who’s in charge of USAID. It’s Dr. Raj Shah.”

We hope to hear that again from Secretary Clinton and even from the president –- and again if necessary. Otherwise continued confusion will undermine the effectiveness of Dr. Shah and of the U.S. overall effort. Consider the number of spokespeople on the issue: Secretary Clinton, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills, Defense officials and others (not to mention Bill Clinton, who is the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, but gets mixed into the U.S. political context for obvious reasons).

The point is not to get into the middle of turf battles between our defense, diplomatic and development agencies, especially when lives are at stake. The truth is that we need to use all of our national security tools to accurately reflect the generosity and shared humanity that Americans around the country feel towards Haiti right now. And we can all agree that the goal is the safety and survival of millions of Haitians and support for stabilizing and rebuilding the country.

But being clear about the U.S. strategy for achieving that goal and who is in charge of that strategy matters. It matters for the effectiveness of the immediate U.S. response, which may be at risk even if there is just the perception of poor coordination. It also matters in terms ensuring that American generosity doesn’t turn into criticism, especially of USAID, if Haiti looks like a Katrina-style failure.

President Obama, Secretary Clinton and other members in the administration should continue to make it clear that Dr. Shah is the president’s designated disaster coordinator and head of the primary U.S. agency for development. They should give him the profile as well as the tools and authorities to do the job he has been asked to do. Getting this part right can help Haiti put its country back together again, and maybe in turn, help put our development policy back together again too.

Blog Entries by Nancy Birdsall

Why I Want My Daughters -- and Son -- to Read Lean In

(4) Comments | Posted March 12, 2013 | 6:09 PM

I'm a grandmother and I want my daughters, my son, their spouses and their spouses-to-be to read Lean In. I read it because Sheryl Sandberg is a member of the Center for Global Development board and I am its founding president. That is why I read...

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Next World Bank President: Two Non-U.S. Candidates for the Short List

(5) Comments | Posted March 1, 2012 | 5:04 PM

This post was co-authored by Arvind Subramanian.

The next World Bank president will need the legitimacy and wide support that only an open and merit-based selection process can ensure. This is now commonly agreed. The best way to ensure legitimacy is to have more than one serious candidate. The Obama...

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Aid Alert: China Offically Joins the Donor Club

(0) Comments | Posted December 6, 2011 | 8:12 AM

Several thousands gathered in the port city of Busan in Korea (the fifth largest port in the world) this past week at the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (#HLF4 on twitter). More than 100 ministers (mostly of development cooperation) attended. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Lee of Korea, President...

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This Time Really Is Different (Is the Money There for Europe and the Rest of the World?)

(0) Comments | Posted November 18, 2011 | 12:52 PM

This is a joint post with Amar Bhattacharya of the G-24.

It is more obvious every day that Europe cannot save itself. A meltdown in Europe would not only hurt Europe and the United States. It would also deal a blow to people's livelihoods everywhere, with high costs...

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Just in Time for Busan: New Measures of Aid Effectiveness

(1) Comments | Posted November 17, 2011 | 3:23 PM

This is a joint post with Rita Perakis.

Late this month representatives of donor and developing country governments, civil society organizations, think tanks, and the private sector will meet in Busan, South Korea, to review progress since the signing of the Paris Declaration of Aid Effectiveness in 2005. Rita and...

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Will the HIV/AIDS Pie Grow Again?

(1) Comments | Posted November 16, 2011 | 3:42 PM

I moderated a debate last week, one in a series on HIV/AIDS issues sponsored by the World Bank and USAID. This was the topic: "Countries should spend a majority of what is likely to be a flat or even declining HIV prevention budget on 'treatment as prevention.'" The...

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Lipton and Zhu at the IMF: Intellectual and Policy Duopoly?

(0) Comments | Posted July 15, 2011 | 5:36 PM

There was a lot of justified hand-wringing and tough talk in the media and in think tank and NGO-land about the unseemly use by Europe of its unwarranted voting weight at the IMF to push the election of Christine Lagarde. The appointment this week of Zhu...

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IMF Leader Selection: It's the Process, Stupid

(1) Comments | Posted May 24, 2011 | 6:29 PM

A Bretton Woods project statement issued on April 6 was prescient indeed:

The MD must be, and must be seen to be wholly independent of any national or regional interest. This is particularly important when the home state is a powerful member of the IMF. In practical terms...

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Friend or Foe: Should the United States Cut Aid to Pakistan?

(3) Comments | Posted May 4, 2011 | 4:38 PM


This is a joint post with Wren Elhai and Molly Kinder.

The news of Osama bin Laden's death in a hideout in Pakistan raises fresh questions about the future of the U.S. development program in that country. That bin Laden was found in the...

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Cash on Delivery Aid: A Good Idea for America too

(0) Comments | Posted March 18, 2011 | 5:22 PM

"Experimentation on foreign aid is valuable - and rare." This is the single most important line in Tina Rosenberg's excellent description of Cash on Delivery Aid in her recent New York Times opinion piece.

Tina fleshes out an important point we have made but not emphasized enough: COD Aid...

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New U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan Rep Is Head Firefighter And Head Gardener

(2) Comments | Posted February 23, 2011 | 2:43 PM

This is a joint post with Wren Elhai and Molly Kinder.

Marc Grossman, a retired Ambassador and former Undersecretary of State, has courageously agreed to take up what the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel has called "the worst job in the world"--Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Grossman will...

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Dear Clinton, Jones and Summers: Five Step Improvement Plan for U.S. Development

(1) Comments | Posted July 15, 2010 | 10:10 AM

This post also appeared on the Center for Global Development's Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Blog

Six months after the Haiti quake, many people are frustrated that the U.S.-led relief and reconstruction effort has not made more rapid progress. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Raj...

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From Gossip to Good Global Development

(0) Comments | Posted May 10, 2010 | 11:36 AM

This is a joint posting with Sarah Jane Staats and also appeared on Global Post and CGD's Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Blog.

In insider Washington there is a battle going on over who will control U.S. global development strategy. The gossip is that it is...

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US Can Give Better Aid to Haiti

(5) Comments | Posted April 6, 2010 | 9:04 AM

Recovery in Haiti can be spurred by smarter US aid that promotes trade and immigration.

Last week at a United Nations conference, donors pledged more than $10 billion to finance reconstruction and development investments in Haiti. The United States promised a hefty $1.15 billion.

But pledging money is the easy...

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SDRs to Jump-Start a Green Fund: Still a Good Idea

(0) Comments | Posted April 2, 2010 | 12:20 PM

Climate change politics are strange. Innovation, even when it's about easy new money, is hard. That's the lesson I extract from what happened on March 4th in the IMF boardroom.

At that meeting, members of the IMF's board discussed informally an excellent staff paper, released to the public last...

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A New CGD Initiative on U.S. Development Strategy in Pakistan: What Is It and Will It Work?

(0) Comments | Posted March 19, 2010 | 10:28 AM

This is a joint post with Molly Kinder.

At CGD, we normally conduct research and analysis on development issues (trade, aid effectiveness, climate change, global health), not developing countries. Pakistan is an exception. Motivated by national security interests, the Obama administration is poised to triple its development assistance to...

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A Green Fund: from the IMF, George Soros and the Government of Mexico

(1) Comments | Posted February 26, 2010 | 8:25 AM

On January 30 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Managing Director of the IMF, announced a possible new initiative - a multi-billion dollar Green Fund (that name is popular - see below) that would help developing countries finance the measures needed to tackle climate change...

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It's 2010! Ten Actionable Ideas (Realized and Yet-to-be-realized) for a 21st-Century Global Development Agenda

(0) Comments | Posted February 25, 2010 | 8:24 AM

I attended a conference convened and hosted by Jean-Michel Severino, the head of the French bilateral agency, outside Paris last week. The question participants addressed was: What should be the goals of the international development community in the post-MDG period after 2015? Should the MDGs be retrofitted and complemented...

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Through the Looking Glass: Haiti and U.S. Development Leadership

(8) Comments | Posted January 21, 2010 | 1:35 PM

This is a joint post with Sarah Jane Staats.

The president and the secretary of state have promised to elevate and strengthen U.S. global development policy in our national interests. In Haiti there is an opportunity to make that promise real-building on the generosity of the American people and...

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