“USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity, demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience.”
This phrase is the first text that appears on USAID’s website, under the heading “What We Do.” Unsurprisingly, this messaging is very reflective of USAID’s larger approach. On one hand, the language of “development” is frequently invoked to justify foreign intervention by any means. Part of this is portraying US-based international programs as the producers of exclusively positive and benevolent interactions. This approach was evident in the presentation we heard at the US embassy, but is also widespread in advertising and media back home.
On the other hand, although it is generally de-emphasized, USAID’s primary goal is made explicit in the second sentence: the top priority of any US policy or action is to ensure the power of the country itself. While “supremacy” may be more accurate than “safety” in this context, the ultimately self-serving nature of such aid is clear. Rather than providing other countries with substantial funds in order to solve problems that are seen as uniquely “theirs,” USAID (and the majority of foreign aid in general) constrains the actions and choices of many national and local organizations.
While this may not be hard to accept in theory, especially with the growing literature on the intersections of colonialism and international relations, it has never been as directly evident to me as it was during this trip. Working with APPG (Aids Prevention Program in Ghana) has shown me the degree to which aid policies restrict the agency of groups as they try to balance service to their communities with the many institutional demands imposed by national and international regulations. Almost every day at work, the Director referenced the budget cuts that were implemented earlier this year; throughout the past several weeks, we learned about the many impacts this had on the group, from changes in office resources and project scope to the reduction and cancelation of certain programs. More recently, we participated in discussions about the cuts predicted for the upcoming fiscal year, and heard the many concerns resulting from this. Even before the cuts, though, it was evident that the organization’s limited resources greatly impacted the amount and type of work they could do.
Despite the limits these policies place on their numbers, program capacity, and range, their dedication is unwavering. I do not in any way want to romanticize the many logistical challenges that groups like APPG face, but I do want to recognize their ability to navigate these significant challenges in order to effectively serve their target populations. My conversations with the APPG staff around these issues will certainly stay with me, and will continue to inform my work and activism. Most significantly, I hope that these kinds of realizations can prompt all of us to reflect on the many ways that our day-to-day actions and choices impact the lives of others on a national and global scale; only then will we able to meaningfully recognize our own positions in relation to international affairs and take responsibility for deconstructing (and hopefully reconstructing and reshaping) those roles.
“USAID: From the American People.” Main Website, <https://www.usaid.gov/>.