Humanitarian Aid and the Biden Administration

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Jacob Kurtzer: Hey, good afternoon. My name is Jake Kurtzer. I’m the interim director and senior fellow with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda. Thanks, everyone, for joining us here virtually at CSIS today. We encourage you to continue to submit questions through the link on our event page. And we’ll remind you that the event today will be posted in its entirety on our website after its conclusion.

I’m very grateful to be joined today by three excellent people for this discussion on “Humanitarian Aid and the Biden Administration.” There have been so many tumultuous events over the last few years that it’s hard to know where we stand. Are we still in the middle of a tumultuous event or the end of it? The U.S. election period is one of those. And while we seem to be emerging from the most contentious moments of that election and its aftermath, we surely remain mired in a political crisis that shows no signs of abating shortly. That said, the political transition is underway with meaningful impacts for how the United States responds to humanitarian challenges abroad.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. and globally the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, with grave humanitarian consequences. The development of the various vaccines certainly bring us a glimmer of hope, but questions about distribution, equity, and access for all remain. Finally, the ravages of armed conflict and their intersection with climate change and natural disasters show no signs of abating. Our field and our lives compel us to pay attention and engage with the serious humanitarian challenges in Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, Myanmar, and on and on.

And so I’m very grateful to be joined today by my three colleagues who bring forward various perspectives on the humanitarian ecosystem, and to help us reflect on this time of crisis both internally and externally as we continue forward with the political transition. So today I’ll just introduce briefly our three panelists.

First, Tjada McKenna, the new – congratulations – CEO of Mercy Corps, leading a team of nearly 6,000 humanitarian workers. Tjada comes to Mercy Corps from being chief operating officer at CARE and Habitat for Humanity, as well as having over a decade of experience within the U.S. government. Next we’ll have Dave Harden, managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group, which is a D.C.-based next-gen firm leveraging talent, tech, and capital to solve some of the world’s most complicated problems. And Dave also brings extensive experience within the U.S. government as a member of the career senior foreign service. And finally we have Obi Anyadike, a senior editor from The New Humanitarian, an indispensable resource for those of us in this field. Obi has an extensive career covering the global south, with particular interest in violent extremism, and is currently joining us today from Johannesburg. So welcome to all of you.

Again, I want to start by saying that this administration is faced with many challenges, but the shift in a political moment also presents an opportunity to rectify, you know, some missteps and put forward a clear statement of policy regarding the importance and independence of U.S. humanitarian assistance. So, you know, without further ado I want to start with you, Tjada. You took over the reins of Mercy Corps in the middle of this global pandemic. And when you look out at the offices of your organization and your nearly 6,000 colleagues working around the world, what do you see as the biggest humanitarian challenges that face the Biden administration? What contexts are a priority for Mercy Corps in 2021?

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna: Yeah. Thank you. First, thank you to Jake and the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda for convening this discussion about what the Biden administration can do, and how to take things on. As we all know, there’s – the Biden administration has to hit the ground running on a lot of fronts. There’s just – there’s no shortage of issues. So even before COVID, at this time last year you had about one in 45 people globally who were in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Today that’s one in 33 people globally. So that’s 235 million people that are reliant on aid to survive. And for the first time in two decades, we see extreme poverty on the rise.

The interesting thing about now is that we’re in this unique situation where everyone is struggling across the world. So the themes – I’m hopeful, because the themes that are dominating the domestic agenda right now – COVID, climate, inequality – are the same factors that have to be taken into account on the humanitarian side, and things that need to be addressed there. So I’m hopeful that we will see synergies and learnings and be able to accelerate our agenda here.

There are three things and three types of contexts that I think are really important for the administration to focus on. First – and, like I said, these are very common to what we’re facing here. But first is the need to focus on equitable and fair distribution of the COVID vaccine, right? We are – this is a global vaccine. We are not safe from this until everyone is safe. I was pleased to hear Secretary of State Blinken when he was in his confirmation hearings. He said that the president is committing to – committed to making sure the vaccine is distributed properly and equitably.

And that’s going to be really key. I know the Biden administration has already asked for a diplomatic plan to be developed in addressing this. So same things we’re seeing here in the U.S. are things we’re focused on. It’s really focused on making sure that we build community trust in the vaccine and it’s focused on working with local community and government to make sure that people who have long experienced discrimination and who are most susceptible to COVID are not in the back of the line for this vaccine. So in the places where we were – you know, that marginalized communities, minority communities, women, people who are very poor.

And this is going to be especially hard in conflict-affected countries where people have – places where people experience discrimination, where you have corruption, systematic marginalization, and where misinformation is quite rampant. So I think during the Ebola period we learned about how important it is to look at local communities and to build trust. So that vaccine initiative will be as first.

The second thing is really to make sure that as we look at COVID and the current crises that we’re thinking about in a comprehensive, humanitarian response because of the secondary effects of COVID – particularly its effects on global food insecurity and inequality. As COVID’s like a force multiplier that just exacerbates every other negative trend you had going on in society. The state of food security and nutrition in the world estimates that by the end of the year COVID-19 might push an additional 132 million people to the brink of starvation. And so the long-lasting effects of that, that will be many.

One of my favorite quotes from a – from a food expert in this space, Dr. Akin Adesina, was “a hungry crowd is an angry crowd.” And so you just – (laughs) – you know, you have to think about all the secondary effects of COVID that are going on. So as the Biden administration prepares relief packages, it’s really important that we think about the global landscape and building resilience and laying the foundation for a stronger recovery that goes beyond COVID.

We have joined, you know, a very tiny amount – I think one-fifth of 1 percent of all the COVID supplementals that have been done have addressed foreign assistance. And those have been really narrowly tailored to vaccines. And so we have joined more than 70 other international NGOs in calling for Congress to at least provide $20 billion, which is still a very small amount in the trillions that we’re talking about, to look at this comprehensive global response.

The final thing I will mention, and I alluded to it earlier, is conflict and being very aware that there is a forecast that projects that COVID-19 could ignite conflict in 13 more countries through 2022. Luckily, the administration has – Congress passed a bill last year called the Global Fragility Act. We were happy to be part of a coalition that led and pushed for that. and that really gives government authority and resources to look at the underlying causes of conflict. It's a work on preventative actions – so things like fraying social cohesion, deteriorating society relationships, misinformation – all the things that COVID’s exacerbating.

We now have tools to look at the underlying causes and to start taking preventative action. And that will be very important for the administration to be doing right away in a very broad way. And we are seeing things now pop up where we didn’t expect them to pop up. And so we’ve got to be focused on those three themes broadly because we just have so many new things happening.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks for that. It’s really comprehensive.

And I think the point about the Global Fragility Act is perfect segue to the question that I want to put to you, Dave, which is about the way the U.S. government approaches some of these challenges. And, you know, from your experience, having worked within the bureaucracy – you know, Tjada gave us a very comprehensive picture of the view facing outwards. But what are some of the challenges internally in the way that the U.S. government responds that the new administration must overcome, you know, to better tackle this intersection of climate, COVID, and conflict?

R. David Harden: Yeah, thank you, Jake, for having me on here. And it’s really exciting to be with your guests. So it’s quite an extraordinary crowd. So a lot of my perspective has been formed since I left government. And I look at these issues now from very much kind of a private sector, tech, and capital, and emergent crises context. And so with that, I offer three broad categories for U.S. aid from an internal operational perspective.

Number one is its system architecture. I think if you look at, say, FEWS NET, which was a breakthrough technology in the mid-’80s, we haven’t seen a similar kind of systems architectural reboot since then. And so what I would encourage is kind of a fundamental leap forward on FEWS NET, a corresponding – and the Biden administration did announce this – but a global surveillance system for pandemics. Andrew Natsios, one of the former administrators, called it a PEWS NET. But an ability to look, you know, into animal markets and corners of the Earth to figure out where we are on pandemics in an emerging way. And then, lastly, I’ve been working very closely with MIT on CREWSNET, which is a long-term forecasting mechanism that would look at climate impact and mitigation strategies.

So the first bucket of things that I think USAID needs to do is build the systems architecture. The second bucket deals with people and money. USAID is a – you know, frankly is a clunky bureaucracy in many regards. The DART teams, the Disaster Assistance Response Teams, can move fast. But historically, AID has had a challenge in moving people and money to emergent problems very, very quickly. And I think that they actually have the inherent authorities to do that. And I would encourage them to look beyond just simply the DART teams, but to include mechanisms to move the career staff, the foreign service staff, and really very critically the foreign service national staff – the local staff that have extraordinary talents that are already dispersed throughout the world.

Related to that is the ability to move the money. And the procurement process is exceedingly slow. And this allows the agency to move money to these problems fast. And so I think that that’s going to have to be addressed. And so finally on the people and money perspective, we’re going to have to realign money against threats. So a lot of the legacy missions I think are going to have to come back and emergent threats, emergent risk, emergent conflicts are going to have to move up on the money bar.

The last bucket is innovation. And I would like to see USAID be much more innovative. You saw that a little bit with the development law. And what I saw, it didn’t actually stick – it didn’t become a part of the DNA. I think we got to figure out how we make that into the DNA. You look at Power Africa and you envision kind of expanding that into the climate market, and using and envisioning almost like a DARPA in DOD for a USAID ability to kind of really take us into the mid-21st century, because in many ways the systems that we’re currently using – the architecture, the bureaucracies, are still kind of stuck in the ’90s. And that’s not where we are as a community. Thank you.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Dave.

Tjada, I’m going to come back to you on some of the things that Dave raised from the perspective of a USAID partner.

But I want to turn to you, Obi, now, because you’re sat in a very different location from a very different perspective. And, you know, you cover Africa. You cover these global threats questions. And so I’m really interested in your point here. Sitting where you are, in Johannesburg, how do you see that global humanitarian picture? And from your perspective, from that – you know, from that perch, you know, what do you think about the way that the U.S. has been responding to, you know, humanitarian crises? How is the U.S. government’s humanitarian crisis? And how do you see the opportunities for the Biden administration?

Obi Anyadike: It is really hard going last. I’ve had to revise my notes because of the great things that your panelists have said. But I think – fundamentally I think we all recognize that, you know, there was a huge credibility problem under Trump. We’re hoping for a reset, a return to some kind of normal thing, none of that, you know, bizarre situation where Pompeo chided Tanzania over its election days after, you know, the U.S. election debacle. And perhaps we don’t see U.S. exceptionalism anymore. We’ve had George Floyd. We’ve had, you know, killer policemen, conspiracy-touting politicians.

I was reading an article by Richard Haass in Foreign Affairs about, you know, repair and rebuild. And that seemed to make sense, to build and develop a new humanitarian and international consensus for what is a changing world. And perhaps that involves listening with a bit more humility, perhaps. But you know, the fact that America is back, did we really miss them is perhaps a question as well. I mean, if this is continuation of the Obama administration, in some respects there were some problems with that administration’s policy. So perhaps more partnership and less scolding. And it’s a complicated world we’re increasingly facing now, with limits to U.S. power.

But in terms of the broader humanitarian issues, I think for sure, you know, there’s a peace and security docket that is crying out for some kind of attention. In Ethiopia and Sahel we’re seeing hot wars, which are intractable and difficult. Ethiopia, an appalling humanitarian situation has very quickly developed, but there’s also problems around managing peace processes in transition countries like Sudan, Mali, South Sudan. So these are ongoing issues where perhaps we’re looking for greater U.S. engagement, which has been absent in the past.

But also recognition that it’s not going to be straightforward. In Ethiopia, for example, we have an African Union which is constrained, but we have some baggage from the previous administration of what role they can play in Ethiopia. Perhaps, you know, there’s a few approaches, such as partnering with the AU and EU to really try and demand some kind of access – humanitarian access to Tigray. I think that has to be a critical area. Maybe something around a Horn of Africa envoy. And the backpack maybe sanctions could be possible to try and get some kind of dialogue restarted, or started, in Ethiopia, in terms of the way forward.

I think the Sahel crisis, we have a rapidly deteriorating conflict. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State are expanding, embedding themselves in what are essentially rural insurgencies, inter-ethnic conflicts which often involve the Fulani/Peul, who are typecast as, you know, the jihadist threat. And that has led to some very bloody clashes, but the French military option, is that the way to proceed? I think a lot of people now are calling for a change. I think maybe the French are looking for a way out of that and perhaps embracing the idea of talking to various groups, including the jihadists.

And I think if Biden could do anything it would be to try and maybe not feel that he needs to automatically return to some kind of solidarity with France, but maybe push this agenda that we need to really start having local solutions, local dialogues to some of these issues. And just finally, I mean, on the COVID issue, I mean, I think, yes, joining COVAX is vital to develop, fund, distribute vaccines. Actually hand over some spare vaccine stock that America seems to have rather a lot of, you know, signaling a partnership and collective responsibility, you know, for this horrendous global challenge. And, you know, money’s also an interesting part of it. COVAX has a terrible financing hole.

But also just – you know, just to roll back a little bit on how African communities have responded to COVID-19. You know, there was this assessment that was going around that Africa would fall into famine, you know, that there was a terrible cataclysm around the corner. But we haven’t seen it, in terms of health. We’ve seen communities impacted heavily in terms of the economic hit that they’ve taken because of the lockdown. But we’ve seen some resilience and some recovery in a number of communities. A lot of it has to do with social protection. So maybe issues around the localization of aid, around the social protections, kind of increasingly now embraced as a way forward.

But, you know, for that to become really an acceptable means – if, you know, arch-capitalist America can accept social protection schemes and money to those in need, maybe we should be thinking of some kind of global response, humanitarian response that really factors in some kind of basic income, something that allows people to live with greater dignity. And those are my initial thoughts, I think.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks very much, Obi. That’s great. You brought up a lot of interesting, you know, potentially contentious ideas. When you started I was thinking about – you were talking about returning the U.S. back to the table. I was thinking about Sorcha O’Callaghan’s piece for ODI referring to that poster in Chile where you can’t go back to normal because normal was the problem. And so I think, you know, when this new administration comes in we’ve seen so many people that we know and trust and are really excited to be back at the table. But I think you’re right, that we have to not just go back to 2016, but actually look at the problems that we’re facing today as a new and unique challenge that requires new and unique approaches.

And some of the stuff that you’ve put on the table here, you know, in terms of communicating with jihadists, in terms of, you know, these different approaches I think are really important questions for U.S.-based organizations to discuss because they touch on some of our third rails. And so I’m going to turn it back to you, Tjada. You heard David talk a little bit about some of this – you know, the way that USAID needs to recalibrate itself, and Obi’s perspective from Joburg. So as a large partner organization, what recommendations would you have for the Biden administration that would allow you to be most effective in programming during and after COVID in some of these complicated contexts, like the Sahel, or Ethiopia, or Yemen, or anywhere where these issues intersect?

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna: Yeah. Well, you know, when I talk to my peers we’re all amazed that our teams have really been able to adapt to the constraints imposed by COVID, and still do our work. But there are things – have been things we need. And I’m hopeful that the Biden administration will be attuned to them and do that.

The first is really increased direct support and flexibility from donors to make sure that we are able to pivot and adapt to the crisis. So this means, like, in programs they’re already funding us in giving us greater flexibility to address health needs and secondary effects as we promote examples – as we promote vaccine acceptance. We are focused on three areas of secondary impact, and where we’re looking for increased flexibility to do that work. And that’s in food insecurity, economic inequality, and conflict.

And so some of the adaptive approaches that we’ve done, for example. On the food security front we increased deliver of cash and vouchers. We, like, increased the amount of cash-based things we were doing to support local markets. In the Central African Republic, we also launched a digital system for food vouchers that used a platform, so that it was – it made it faster, but it also was, like, 100 percent contactless delivery of fund and vouchers to families, where they could still go to local markets, and purchase foods, and do what they needed to do.

We also, in terms of that flexibility, the flexibility in connecting the humanitarian and development assistance to better strengthen the sources of resilience and self-reliance to kind of help populations through this. So for instance, in one of our economic livelihood programs in Ethiopia, we partnered with those limited small home businesses to pivot to produce face coverings, and handwashing stations, and market soap, and cleaning. We also gave stimulus payments to local businesses to account for COVID. So that’s the kind of thinking across – and that’s a development funding not a humanitarian funding. So really giving us flexibility to work across those and build things in.

We also are focused and thinking a lot about, as I mentioned earlier, mistrust and social cohesion. So I think making sure that they fund those. Building on some of the things that Dave said, things that give me hope – you know, now for the first time I believe ever – Dave might correct me if I’m wrong – you know, with Samantha Power being named and USAID being elevated to a seat in the Cabinet, I’m hoping that there are hurtful things that really set us back – like the designation of the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization – those kind of things make humanitarian access just much more difficult and put people at risk.

So I’m hoping that with USAID’s increased profile and seat at the table that we will be able to prevent policies like that. And that there will be a thought process about what – as to what types of actions, what effects they can have on organizations like ours, that are committed to providing humanitarian assistance throughout all of this. Also, just more – I couldn’t agree with Dave more around the need to make sure that we have the right tools for innovation, to kind of try new things. I think, you know, COVID has changed the way that we all work, and we’ve got to live into that. But we’ve got to also just continue to push the envelope on innovation and other things that really help to more localize aid, and really help people to empower themselves.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Tjada.

Dave, back to you. We’ve talked a lot about practice and the challenges, but I want to jump into politics a little bit. So Tjada mentioned, and we had a question from Pia Wanek at Global Communities about this elevation to the NSC. So you know, maybe you can touch on that. But we had multiple people in our Q&A from the audience task about the Yemen designation and the FTO. And there were a couple of, you know, policies, political issues that were left behind by the previous administration.

One was this designation of the Houthis. Another was the cutting of all the funding for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And so I’m wondering, you know, thinking about sort of the politics here, you know, what does the elevation to the NSC mean in terms of that humanitarian voice being at the table? And how should this administration approach some of these sometimes more contentious political issues that intersect with obvious humanitarian priorities?

R. David Harden: Well, I think it’s fantastic that USAID will be in the Principals Committee. I was one who sat the NSC table a lot – not at the principals but at the deputies and also at the lower levels. But having USAID’s voice in that mix will make American foreign policy simply stronger, in large part because we’re really good on the ground. I mean, we actually understand the politics and the trends and the economics and the social implications from a ground perspective I think way better than, let’s say, at the State Department. And it gives us a voice that will complement both what DOD and the IC and State will bring. So it’s fantastic.

You wanted me to talk about Yemen, and the Houthi designation, and the Palestinians?

Jacob Kurtzer: Yeah, I’d be interested in that. I followed your public comments on Twitter on the FTO designation quite a bit. And I think, you know, it touches on what Obi was speaking to about, you know, there’s a sense of we can’t talk to those people, we have to treat those people as terrorists. And it’s been an overarching challenge for humanitarian organizations for a long time. And the question of – you know, with respect to Gaza and the West Bank, I mean, these are – these are areas where domestic politics really, you know, get mixed up into our humanitarian response in a negative way.

R. David Harden: Yeah. So on Yemen, obviously Pompeo jammed the Biden administration by putting out the FTO designation in a broad, sweeping way on January 19th, his last full day in office. And I think the Biden administration made the right call by pausing that. I probably would have paused a little bit longer than 30 days, but it was the right call to take a look at it. And I have written a lot about this. And I actually learned something that changed my opinions a little bit.

And so, you know, look, the Western NGOs are absolutely against the Houthi designation. Yemeni diaspora is predominantly in favor of the Houthi designation. And that was something that surprised me a little bit. And it’s important because we have to approach these issues with a bit of humility about what is going on. And so I mean, Yemen is so complex, and there’s very little that we actually will be able to do to deconflict it.

I think – I think maybe tailoring that FTO designation so it targets just the Houthi leadership and maybe the second tier might be the appropriate outcome to recognize that they are bad actors, and that they could open up the humanitarian space tomorrow. But at the same time, they are a pretty dominant power in that mix, and there’s not an easy answer to Yemen. So we have to enter Yemen with a lot of humility.

On the Israel-Palestine front, 2021 is not 2016. By my count we – on the Israeli and the Palestinian side, $4.3 billion in that mix. Three-point-eight billion (dollars) of it in 2021 money is for Israel, and predominantly military assistance. The Israeli relationship is deep and mutually beneficial. At the same time, Israel is a rich country. They have handled COVID probably better than we have. And they have a human development index better – you know, equal to ours, and a life expectancy better than ours. So before we put out $3.8 billion to the Israelis, we’re going to need something.

We’re going to need something concrete. You know, A, beginning with respect to Biden. But also maybe something very tangible on the two-state solution, like a conversion from Area C to Area A. Something that really also would help the Palestinian economy and acknowledge their aspirations. The same theory though holds for the Palestinians. Palestinians have not had elections in 16 years. They have to have elections. They have to understand that if Hamas comes back into power it’s going to affect their chances for statehood and further funding. And so I would really urge that we not buy process with this $4.3 billion, particularly at a time when America is suffering and we have hungry kids at home. That if we are going to spend $4.3 billion on the Israeli-Palestinian account, that we get something that’s concrete, tangible, and worth the money.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Dave. A lot to unpack there.

I want to turn it back to you now, Obi. You know, listening into this conversation about some of the – you know, the U.S. sanctions, the terrorist designations, you know, this is – you’ve covered the intersection of terrorism and humanitarian action quite a bit. So I want to – I want to put kind of two questions to you, and you can take them in whichever sequence you want.

The first is, you know, looking at this from the – from a non-U.S. perspective, you know, how do you see this challenge? You know, Dave raised the really interesting point that U.S. humanitarian organizations pushed back quite a bit on the designations, because it impacts the ability to work. But that doesn’t always reconcile with the voices of diaspora communities or the citizens in those contexts themselves. And I know it’s a big issue in northeast Nigeria, where we’ve communicated quite a bit about the problem there.

The second question I want to – I want to put to you is as a journalist, right? The American attention span I think in Washington tends to follow the latest crisis, right? So, you know, six months ago there was a ton of attention on the Sahel, and now there’s kind of attention on Ethiopia. And then now-now, today, this week, there’s a ton of attention on Myanmar. And from your perspective, do you see – you know, what are the consequences of that shifting attention? Do you think we need to have a longer-framed span on some of these challenges? How does it impact the humanitarian response in the countries that you’re covering from your spot in Joburg?

Obi Anyadike: OK. If I take the first question first, I think it depends – first, taking northeast Nigeria. It really depends which part of Nigeria you’re sitting in. I think in the rest of Nigeria, or southern Nigeria, in the south and in Abuja I think there’s a general exhaustion with the northeast Nigeria problem. Part of that is related to the military mismanagement of it. And I – and also in the northeast there is also obviously a great deal of anger towards the jihadists. So though people try and understand where they’re coming from – and I think, you know, that sort of trope of poverty and marginalization is overplayed more definitely – but I think there is some sympathy, most definitely for kids who’ve been abducted, co-opted, men and women.

But the idea of trying to bring them home, reconcile, resettle them is a really difficult step to take for a number of communities. So the military is trying to. There’s a great deal of opposition, primarily because the military has been bad at preparing the communities that they are going to return to. So these guys are seen as being pampered in their detention facilities, and given vocational training, you know. And they’re sent back to communities which have been laid low by the conflict. And nothing has gone to help these people with their livelihood. So that is one issue. And obviously it’s an easy one to politicize. And that’s sort of, kind of unfortunately, part for the course.

But also there’s – in the Sahel – and context is important. I think in the Sahel there’s a feeling that – I think that a lot of the Western intervention is to do with Western interests and much less to do with local interests. And I think that’s – we’ve seen a great deal of protest around the French intervention, for sure. And we also realize that that kind of stoked the coup in Mali last year – this kind of destabilizing – and I think there is genuine calls for dialogue. But obviously this also becomes a politicized part of the problem in the Sahel. And part of the problem, frankly, with northeast Nigeria’s been governance issue.

So really trying to bring the sides together and to discuss the fault lines and the problems – you know, if the government is at the table, the government is part of the problem and they need to be able to recognize that. And they need to start instead of dividing and ruling, which in the Sahel in particular has been par for the course, they need to realize that they need a different strategy. That strategy hasn’t work.

On the media front – sorry, Jake?

Jacob Kurtzer: Can I just jump in there, then? I mean, it gets back to the media question, but, you know, does – you mentioned at the onset that the way that the administration came in and started messaging. And in a context like the Sahel, does the messaging – how much does the messaging matter and how much does the – does the practice matter? I mean, you know, from your perspective covering these things, right, the messaging is important. But at the end of the day, how – you know, where they spend the dollars and how, I think, is – you know, how do you see that balance between voice and action?

Obi Anyadike: You mean in terms of international community?

Jacob Kurtzer: In terms of the Biden – you know, the USG specifically, but the international community writ large.

Obi Anyadike: I think in the Sahel I think the French are pulling back. I think there was a – there was a – I think Macron has realized that perhaps this is not as effective as was envisaged. I think he’s learned the lesson that many other more powerful governments have learned that counterinsurgency’s very hard to do, especially if your primary response is military. But I think there’s a pulling back, or France is looking for new options. But the – you know, you’re always going to pick and choose who you want to talk to. And that’s part of the problem. (Laughs.) In a sense, you’re – is that – is that the right beginnings of a dialogue, if you’re selecting only people you feel comfortable with?

So I think for Biden, I think America has also signaled that it’s perhaps winding down its military response. But I think maybe they just might be a problem that this new U.S. administration might want to signal and flag solidarity with the – with NATO in the prosecution of the conflict in the Sahel, whereas it could perhaps play a more useful function if it kind of supported these more diplomatic initiatives.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Obi.

I want to come back to you, Tjada, because we – Obi and I have just been going back and forth a little bit on signaling versus practice. And you started out by talking about Secretary Blinken’s commitment to equitable distribution. But we had an event last year with one of your colleagues, researchers, Jeeyon Kim, talking about, you know, local social networks and the role they play in humanitarian response. And localization I think is a big – is a big trend. It’s been, you know, 25 years since some of the commitments made.

And I think this is one of those where the narrative, I think, from the incoming administration is very, very strong. But how can – how can, you know, policy analysts, journalists, and USG partners push the administration to, you know, most effectively reach the goals of getting money into the hands of the local organizations, and into the hands – you know, the support into the hands of the effected populations, the most effectively, the most quickly.

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna: Yeah. And I’m – one of the things we’re really committed to is, like, studying and consistently improving our approaches. So I’m delighted that Jeeyon was there last year with CSIS to share our findings. And for those of you who are interested in it, if you visit the research section of our Mercy Corps website you can see some of that work, and other research by country and theme.

So localization is more important now than ever, right? The COVID-19 crisis pushed organizations that were even reluctant to do it, it pushed them further into doing it because they just couldn’t fly in and out. But also there’s this – you know, the Black Lives Matter movement in America really prompted – or helped to accelerate the global recognition of the systemic inequities in our – in our society. And those include our development sector. You know, people talk about colonialism. So localization is more urgent than ever. And it will be important for acceptance and trust.

We saw this – and we’re glad that the Biden administration understands this. We learned a lot during Ebola, when communities were not accepting of foreign health-care workers. And, you know, not since we had – we trained, like, about 15,000 community messengers to reach people to combat that. So that’s part of what we need to do. I think the U.S. government really needs to work with larger organizations like ours to figure out how to partner to work with local actors. You know, receiving money from the U.S. government, the U.S. people, has a lot of – there are a lot of compliance and reporting burdens, and other things that may not be feasible when you’re trying to work at very hyper-local levels and organizations that serve very poor people.

And so that’s where we – I was just on a call with our Nepal team. We partner almost – we work almost exclusively through local partners there. And, you know, there are things that – the capabilities that we have as a larger NGO that we feely share, but we need more core support to do that. So for example, we have social inclusion training, making sure that people from excluded castes are not only on our staff, but we also do it programmatically with partner organizations in our programs to make sure that we’re working with them.

We also, I think, as a sector, need to learn how to – how to share power more equitably. The local partners we work with are not just subgrantees, right? They help us design projects, they help us – tell us where to go, they help us say what’s needed. And so really building those strong partnerships along the way. I think the U.S. government can do a lot to encourage that and to provide resources for us to work together in partnership, and to support that capacity building, and to support all the compliance regulations, and the best practices and things that we want to see from U.S. government replicated in the field and in all the organizations that we work with.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Tjada.

We have a question from the audience from a friend and colleague Dave Polatty at the Naval War College talking about if we could rebalance funding within the agencies. You know, I think the answer is, like, we all would start with more funding towards USAID and PRM. You know, it seems like DOD is reasonably well funded. But, Dave, turning to you, you know, so kind of thinking about this rebalance and drawing on your perspective, you know, one of the interesting things about our political transition is it comes right at a moment of bureaucratic transition within USAID. So there’s a newly spin-up bureau that has combined, you know, Food for Peace and OFDA, the DART teams that you were – the bureau that oversees the DART teams that you spoke about.

So how do you see that kind of bureaucratic shift? Does this get to the heart of the transformation that you were talking about in your – in your opening comments, or do we need to see even more radical bureaucratic change? And what’s the best way to do that? You know, we don’t want to just move deck chairs around. We want to get to an efficient, you know, donor and responding agency.

R. David Harden: So the short answer is that kind of bureaucratic change that happened in the end of the Obama administration/the beginning of the Trump administration is not particularly meaningful to me. I mean, I think that we just have to envision a mid-21st century way of doing business. And in addition, we have to connect much more strongly with the heartland, right? It can’t be that everybody who’s involved in humanitarian assistance and foreign policy is from D.C. and New York. You know, because at the end of the day this is taxpayer dollars.

And so what does that mean? That means that we have to produce results, that we have to use the resources that we have very, very effectively. And those resources include human talent, right? And again, from a USAID perspective, that very much includes the local employees, who probably outnumber the number of foreign service officers and civil service officers. And so I would just try to define where we’re going so that we’re not buying process, but that we’re buying results, and that these are meaningful tradeoffs for people in middle America, who aren’t getting, you know, that benefit of that extra dollar.

And I know that – I just think that what we have seen, both in – you know, with GameStop and the January 6th insurrection, and the Navalny video, and the protests that are surrounding Russia right now, what it means is that we must be much deeper and more effectively connected into the fabric of our country, so that when we are delivering this assistance, we are delivering it with meaningful results for the most vulnerable. Absent that, we shouldn’t get any more money.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks Dave. I did not anticipate GameStop coming up, but I’m glad it did. And I think there’s – like, there’s so many interesting things about that. You know, most of the obvious narratives are probably wrong. But there does – it does, I think, reflect a certain element of discontent, you know, on the part of a lot of people outside of New York, in this case, with the way the systems work. And I think what you’re talking about, connecting to the heartland, is essential. And it’s something that we’re thinking about here.

So, you know, turning to you, Obi, and I think that will wrap it up, I want to – I want to – you know, Dave talked a little bit about, you know, realigning USAID for the 21st century. I’m curious, one, is in your – in your work as a journalist on humanitarian practice, are there models from peer donors of more effective, more efficient humanitarian donors that we should be looking to and learning lessons from, both private or states?

And then secondly, and this may be a big question, but we had a question from the audience about, you know, the role of China as a new – as a new actor in humanitarian and development work. And from your perspective, do you see that as a meaningful player, you know, particularly in Africa? We know that there’s some indications of, you know, vaccine or mask diplomacy, but is that something that we should be cognizant of, thinking about? Or is that a new – a new, quote/unquote – you know, a new – like terrorism, this thing that people will set up as a foil, but not necessarily a meaningful counterpart to U.S. and European humanitarian action?

Obi Anyadike: Yeah. I mean, on the Chinese front, I think that it might be a little bit of a red herring, to a certain degree. I think people have thought a lot about – I mean, China’s presence on the continent is very evident. And it’s a different kind of assistance. As we know, it’s more infrastructural, it’s more direct financing. And I think there’s – you know, from the previous administration, there were scare stories of debt bondage, et cetera. And I don’t think that’s quite come about. There’s also – I mean, there has been some debt forgiveness.

There’s also – I think we might be getting into a kind of vaccine diplomacy in Europe. And that’s kind of an important soft power. There’s also even a Cuban vaccine that South Africa looks interested in as well, which I don’t know if that’s been proven yet, but that’s kind of interesting. But you can imagine all sorts of alternatives. But yeah, in terms of models I think what personally struck me when I was based in Nairobi was the ability of the large – I think Tjada spoke to this – the inability of the large aid organizations to act quickly and target people most in need. I think, you know, urban aid is kind of hard to do.

But I think what was really amazing to see – and you could see it every day in terms of how community aid jumped in, that real hyper-local aid jumped in, and kind of filled that gap. Be it even the diaspora sending money home, or just your local church or mosque responding. And even if it was a small scale, it made a difference. I would go past a group of homeless people that would gather every lunchtime, and 200 people would be fed in just this tiny little part of town. I mean, that to me was kind of very different and quite uplifting.

But in terms of the broader models, I think, you know, we’ve talked about localization. But I don’t know where that is going. That seems to have kind of stalled. We talked about the grand bargain, that the money doesn’t seem to be there for that aid compact to be as effective as people had hoped. So I think in the wake of COVID perhaps we’ll see a decentralization, we’ll see slightly different models come to the fore. But I don’t know if China’s going to be part of that.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Obi, for that. We’re kind of to the end of our time. So let me just say, on behalf of CSIS and the viewing audience, thank you to Tjada, Dave, and Obi both for the work that you all do on the daily basis – your journalism is instrumental, your operational work at Mercy Corps, at the Lincoln Labs is excellent. And we’re grateful for your work, and for your time with us today. And we look forward to continuing to engage with you.

And again a reminder for our audience, this event will be posted in its entirety on our website in the near future. So thank you very much for joining us and wish you all a good afternoon.

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