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

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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 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.