The Foreign Service Journal, December 2021


THE FOREIGN SERVICES JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2021 67 USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 USAID at the NSC Table Each administration approaches national security differently, not only in reference to actual policy, but also in terms of policy formulation. For example, previous administrations have tended to invite the USAID administrator to meetings of the Board of Directors of the National Security Council (PC) on a discretionary basis “as needed”. The Trump administration has made the administrator a regular at NSC (DC) Members of Parliament committee meetings, a cut below the mainstream. When President Joe Biden appointed Ambassador Samantha Power as a director, he elevated the position to the status of a “permanent” participant in the PC. For those of you who are particularly interested in the NSC, including some of its history, I recommend the Congressional Research Service report of June 2021, “The National Security Council: Background and Issues for Congress”. So what does a seat at the NSC table mean for USAID as an institution, and for FSOs? The elevation of USAID from DC to PC is what tech experts call “a big deal.” Further reflection can be found in an article published in June by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, capturing the views of five former administrators on the importance of adding the USAID administrator to the NSC. As the article points out, “Being at the table allows a development voice to shape and influence policy in a meaningful way. It also means that USAID is no longer seen simply as a technocratic implementing agency, but rather as representing a distinct political perspective. In fact, over the past few years USAID has gradually strengthened its capacity to engage with the interagency community, including the NSC. PC meetings are typically the culmination of a series of interagency processes and dialogues, and USAID has significantly improved its game in terms of representing agency priorities and perspectives in the Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) and other sub-CP forums. Certainly, our field-led model can be difficult when DC-based colleagues have to commit to Washington time; they want to represent the field but do not have the luxury of saying to the interagency, “I would like to consult the mission and come back to you later.” But even here, we have improved our coordination and communications, and are better able to bring our strong comparative advantage of field focus and perspective to the CNS. Kudos to all USAID colleagues who underscored the agency’s role and contribution to US national security policy. Despite all the progress we have made institutionally, we must continue to strengthen our human, IT, and operational capacities to fulfill USAID’s high NSC role on a long-term sustainable basis. We need to invest in building USAID’s capacity — including the number, skills, and roles of FSOs — to ensure a truly permanent position in the years to come. In the absence of this investment, I’m afraid the experts will write that it was Administrator Samantha Power as an individual who was appointed to the NSC Board of Directors, and not USAID the institution. We may even see USAID – and the development issue – revert to “as appropriate” status in future NSC administration structures. For FSOs, USAID’s high role within the NSC should present an excellent opportunity to contribute to US development policy and priorities, as well as to develop professional skills, networks and experience. . In fact, given USAID’s unique field-oriented perspective, FSOs bring valuable knowledge and skills to these positions. In turn, the details provided to the NSC provide FSOs with the opportunity to develop their skills and hone new ones, and to contribute to the USAID precepts set for Foreign Service Promotion Advice, not to mention the advanced development at the highest level of government. Of course, NSC positions are tough and you probably shouldn’t expect to maintain an optimal work-life balance. And when it comes to an FSO’s career path and assignment planning, these aren’t traditional “assignments” you bid on; these are details. The agency does not control when opportunities arise or who the NSC ultimately accepts. Such operational complexities can be overcome, and the Office of Human Capital and Talent Management and others appreciate the unique nature of the positions. But it is clear that they remain complex, especially for FSOs stationed in the field. While they can be stressful and time consuming, they are also professionally and personally rewarding! Soft power, including development, will remain at the forefront of US foreign policy. In this context, I encourage FSOs to seek out NSC retail opportunities. You will undoubtedly become a stronger and more competent officer; but more importantly, you will help advance the agency’s mission and U.S. foreign policy through collaboration with colleagues from across the foreign policy community. I hope that over the next few years USAID – through investments in FSOs and other career staff as well as political and structural reforms – will secure a truly permanent seat at the committee table. directors of the NSC. After all, as the old saying goes: if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. m

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