Memo to Incoming USAID Leadership in the Biden Administration

Welcome to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)! During the first 100 days, leaders will face a learning curve as USAID underwent the largest transformation in its history as a federal agency over the past four years. While there may be some elements of the Trump administration’s policies that the Biden team chooses to change, the “bones” of the transformation are good, have bipartisan support in Congress, and were led by the Agency’s career staff, both in Washington, D.C., and in the field.

The First 30 Days

On day one, leaders will be confronted with managing the Agency under Covid-19 conditions and the operational requirements for addressing the pandemic and its aftereffects worldwide. Vaccine distribution will figure prominently into the administration’s decisionmaking. Gradual return to work will figure in as well—USAID in Washington currently is in the first phase of opening, with approximately 5-10 percent of staff in the buildings each day. Missions overseas are under chief-of-mission authority and decisions are being driven by the Department of State.

Global Vaccine Distribution

  • Determine, within the interagency, the level of funding the U.S. government will put toward vaccine distribution in developing countries. This will require coordination with the Office of Management and Budget as well as with Congress.
  • Determine distribution—through existing global supply chain contract capabilities or through different channels (e.g., new contract mechanisms) directly to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
  • Brand the vaccines so recipients know they are “From the American People.”

Economic Impacts of Covid-19

  • Massive economic dislocation, particularly in low- and lower-middle income countries, especially in Africa;
  • Migration;
  • Supply chain disruptions—the pressing need to onshore, nearshore, and allied-shore manufacturing and distribution;
  • Food insecurity—estimates upward of 100 million people in 2020 alone; and
  • Democracy and governance issues when there is domestic instability in countries.

Humanitarian Crises

  • It is hard to predict exactly where the next naturally occurring humanitarian crisis will strike, but it is easy to predict that there will be naturally occurring crises. Be prepared and note that the Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs is well equipped to address them. During our tenure, at one point, we had eight humanitarian assistance teams up and running simultaneously.
  • Man-made humanitarian crises will also certainly emerge, likely through clampdowns on free expression or freedom of religion, and possibly under the guise of a “Covid-19 response.”
  • Long-standing, man-made humanitarian crises will continue, including in Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Iraq, Haiti, South Sudan, the Lake Chad Basin, and Central Africa.

The First 100 Days

The mission of USAID under the Trump administration, broadly adopted worldwide and within the partner community, is the Journey to Self-Reliance (J2SR). It has led to a clarity of mission and goals, all focused on the need to end foreign assistance with a recognition that this will happen in some countries sooner than in others. Most field missions have completed J2SR strategies.

Components of J2SR

  • “Clear Choice” framework: a focus on great power competition underlies all of USAID’s work;
  • Strengthen countries’ commitment and capacity to manage their development journey based on country roadmaps and other country-specific analysis;
  • Private sector engagement builds lasting self-reliance;
  • Financing self-reliance mobilizes and enhances use of domestic resources;
  • Redefining the relationships with partner governments;
  • 5G as a critical component of J2SR;
  • Digital strategy; and
  • Partnerships with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Export-Import (ExIm) Bank in digital, energy, and infrastructure.

Great Power Competition and Countering China

Countering China is the most critical national security effort of our day, and USAID has a pivotal role in addressing this challenge in the Indo-Pacific region and worldwide. The Clear Choice framework developed by the Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau with input from across the Agency addresses great power competition, which is best articulated as a competition of values systems: free countries and free markets versus authoritarian regimes and state capitalism.

Attempts to institutionalize Clear Choice efforts in the USAID front office were hampered by political infighting but are critical for USAID to maintain its position as a key player in national security. A permanent, leadership role to counter China should be housed in the front office as is the case in other national security agencies. The key areas of focus for the strategy to counter China are digital, energy, infrastructure, governance, and workforce development. While the value proposition is obvious, it does not speak for itself and should be articulated regularly in missions worldwide.

The U.S. government has numerous tools in its toolbox to confront China. The interagency crafted a communications campaign to take on Beijing directly, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis. The nature of the Chinese Communist Party is one that fosters vertically integrated communications—many outlets in China communicate exactly the same message. This is far more complex in a free society with open media. However, making use of the whole of government to communicate out messages about the great power competition is critical. Expressing the differences between the United States and China in the context of free markets and free societies versus state capitalism and authoritarianism is critical, and USAID, along with other development agencies, has a key role to play. USAID has partnered closely with the DFC, ExIm Bank, Department of Commerce, Department of State, Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, National Security Council, and Millennium Challenge Corporation in a comprehensive messaging approach.

Digital Transformation

While the Clear Choice framework also focuses on energy, infrastructure, governance, and workforce issues, the area where USAID has seen the most progress is in the digital realm. The Agency launched its Digital Strategy in April 2020, perfectly timed for the global shutdown due to Covid-19. The concept of “digital first” as the lead element of all programming is broadly adopted because it is the world’s newest reality. The Digital Strategy and front office championed secure 5G as a critical element for emerging market countries in order to deliver on J2SR—in order to be fully self-reliant, a country must be able to compete economically with developed economies. This will not happen without a national plan for secure, open, reliable, interoperable, and clean 5G.


Under the broad banner of energy self-reliance as a component of J2SR, the lion’s share of this work has been done in collaboration with other U.S. government entities, and not necessarily led by USAID. The Department of Energy plays a role in more mature markets, but the DFC and State Department play significant roles in bringing other countries to the table to leverage their energy resources or to finance energy infrastructures in their countries. Asia EDGE and the Caribbean Energy Initiative are two areas where USAID has played a significant role.

Abraham Accords

A new and exciting tool for the incoming administration to leverage into our donor work is the Abraham Accords. The newly established Abraham Fund (with funding from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S. government) will finance projects in other Abraham Accords countries (currently Sudan, Egypt, and Jordan), with others potentially in the pipeline, especially in Africa. The Fund is also looking for ways to leverage private investment into the Fund as a public-private partnership. USAID signed global memoranda of understanding with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, with others being considered for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

2019 NDAA Section 889(B)

There is a section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2019 that will have a large impact on implementing partners during the Biden administration. Section 889(B) of the Act makes it impossible to award contracts and some grants to implementing partners who have any portion of their information technology systems running on what are called “covered technologies.” These technologies include Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, and others not usually present in USAID work. The Agency’s Bureau for Management has submitted requests to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for a waiver on foreign assistance with an eye toward rolling out Section 889(B) in a phased manner so that operations do not grind to a halt. That request is still pending.

Climate Change

While climate change was not a priority area for the Trump administration’s USAID, activities to promote an awareness of and responsiveness to environmental shocks, in the form of hurricanes, wildfires, locust infestations, and droughts, and their adverse consequences were front and center of responses. The primary activities to address environmental issues fell to two primary parts of the Agency—the Center for Environment, Energy, and Infrastructure within the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, and in both the Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs and Bureau for Resilience and Food Security under the associate administrator for relief, response, and resilience.

Additionally, the Trump administration undertook a few flagship programs focused on environmental degradation and efforts to combat it. These included the Clean Cities, Blue Ocean initiative in which USAID plays a role through the Center for Environment, Energy, and Infrastructure and joining the Trillion Trees Initiative. Under the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), USAID funded several projects focused on women farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs.

The concept of One Health did not factor into new USAID funding in global health from out of USAID headquarters, but several missions, particularly Vietnam, have programs focused on One Health to detect and respond to infectious disease threats at the intersection of animal, human, and environmental health.

Passing the Baton

The transition to the Biden administration, on the programmatic side, should be fairly straightforward. The lion’s share of activity is generated by the field and field missions have not been as severely impacted as have Washington operations.

Bonnie Glick is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. She previously served as deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Bonnie Glick
Senior Adviser (Non-Resident), Project on Prosperity and Development