Rethinking Interagency Balance amid a Pandemic, Presidential Transition, and Soaring Global Food Insecurity

While the disruptions of 2020 were inarguably challenging, change on so many levels can be seen as a forced invitation to be bold, to build new habits, and to do things differently. So, how do we harness the positive elements of such a difficult time to recalibrate government programming and public policy for the better?

The incoming Biden administration will be tasked with repairing our global reputation, restoring morale within broken U.S. agencies, and reinvigorating U.S. leadership to address not only a pandemic, but also the repercussions of a domestic terrorist attack on our democracy. Competing for attention among these challenges are the soaring inequities and rising global hunger levels caused by conflict, climate, and Covid-19.

There has been meaningful progress by the United States to reduce global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition over the past decade, from legislative action to innovative programming. One area that could use more careful consideration under the Biden administration is the whole-of-government approach, particularly since the Global Food Security Strategy will be revised and submitted later this year. It is time to rethink the interagency structure of Feed the Future to ensure that efforts are capitalizing on U.S. expertise, generating the greatest results with taxpayer investments, and, most importantly, improving more lives.  

Q1: Will the Biden administration place global food security as a top policy priority?

A1 Probably not, but there is hope. While foreign assistance is not even listed on President-elect Biden’s policy priority list, as the vice president under the Obama administration he was instrumental in the success of major global development initiatives, including Feed the Future. After the announcement that the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) received the Nobel Peace Prize last year, then-candidate Biden tweeted that, “With global hunger on the march, made worse by the pandemic and conflict around the world, we must come together to fight food insecurity. As president, I’ll support the WFP and reassert American leadership to address global hunger.”

Even though this supportive statement is promising, it is highly unlikely that Biden will select global food insecurity as his top development or humanitarian priority. Like every president before him, he will select a platform that sets him apart from his predecessors. Addressing the root causes of global hunger and food insecurity was Obama’s international development success story, just as Bush focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But if Biden’s cabinet picks are any indication, it seems likely that Biden will default to sustain, support, and grow development initiatives created under Obama, which would include remaining a leader in addressing global hunger.

Q2: What does the interagency structure of Feed the Future look like in Washington, D.C.?  

A2: There was originally tension between the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2010 over who would lead Feed the Future, but former USAID administrator Raj Shah’s creation of the then Bureau for Food Security helped demonstrate USAID’s leadership and commitment, and the USAID administrator was named the Feed the Future coordinator, with a deputy coordinator for development (at USAID) and a deputy coordinator for diplomacy (at the Department of State). In addition to the Department of State and USAID, Feed the Future involves the efforts of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, and Treasury; Millennium Challenge Corporation; U.S. International Development Finance Corporation; Peace Corps; U.S. African Development Foundation; and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

In 2016, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Global Food Security Act (GFSA). Authorities of the GFSA were vested in the president and ultimately delegated to USAID, which still leads Feed the Future and interagency coordination today.

For context, when President Obama launched his global hunger and food security initiative more than a decade ago, he followed the whole-of-government framework modeled under Bush’s AIDS effort, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR created the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator under the Department of State to lead the overall coordination of the eight U.S. agencies engaged. One stark difference is that the Department of Defense is part of the PEPFAR model, yet noticeably absent within Feed the Future, despite linkages between the impact of food insecurity on stability and security.

Q3: What does interagency collaboration on global food security in the field look like?

A3: The CSIS Global Food Security Program led field research and congressional delegation trips to Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Senegal, and Ghana between 2015 and 2018 to look at Feed the Future programs. One of the salient trends observed included the importance and imbalance of strategic collaboration between U.S. federal agencies and initiatives on food and nutrition security.

The truth is that Feed the Future’s whole-of-government approach, which includes 11 different U.S. agencies, has never been perfectly streamlined or synergistic across target countries. To be fair, the complexities of U.S. interagency coordination in countries where we have bilateral agreements rarely match the vision of well-intended policymakers in Washington, D.C. We are a long way from the Marshall Plan of 1948, touted as the benchmark for a whole-of-government approach.

There are certainly examples of success. In Senegal, Feed the Future programming designed by USAID was able to amplify and reinforce infrastructure investments made under an already established Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. The Feed the Future strategy was created alongside and just after these major MCC projects, a brilliant strategic overlay that was perfectly, even if not purposefully, timed. This level of coordination, however, is the exception, not the rule, between MCC and Feed the Future programming.

It needs to be understood that of the 11 U.S. agencies engaged in Feed the Future efforts, it is not unusual that only a handful have a presence or programming in each target country. USAID and the Department of State, of course, are omnipresent, but others—from agencies as diverse from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Geological Service—may not be engaged in the target country at all. Even the MCC, whose mission of poverty reduction and country ownership perhaps most aligns with USAID, currently only has compacts in five of Feed the Future’s 12 current target countries. Of the five, only one compact, Niger, is focused predominately on agricultural development.

The bottom line is that synchronizing a combination of U.S. agencies, each with its own culture, mission, programmatic timeline, and budget constraints, is inherently complex and rarely executed in a way that is strategic, leads to accountability, and reinforces results.

Q4: What are some potential changes that the incoming administration should consider?

A4: Interagency coordination is still the right concept, particularly to tackle a development challenge as grand as global hunger. However, with a new Global Food Security Strategy due to Congress this year, now is precisely the time to reassess interagency efforts.

First, reconsider the level of effort of the agencies engaged and whether new partners should be included. It seems past time to elevate the role of national security and build a better bridge between defense, diplomacy, and development by including the Department of Defense. There will be the challenges that come with civil-military collaboration, including agency culture and communication, but there are solutions that can outweigh the resistance or risk of a partnership between military and development efforts.  

Second, restructure titles at the top, at least in Washington, D.C. Does it still make sense to call the USAID administrator the Feed the Future coordinator, or should that go to the head of USAID’s Bureau of Resilience and Food Security? Drop the dual titles of deputy coordinator for development at USAID and deputy coordinator for diplomacy at the Department of State, as the equality does not remotely match the capacity or scale of effort; at the same time, though, consider a robust revival of the Office of Global Food Security within the Office of the Secretary of State, which has been gutted under the Trump administration but could once again lead department-wide activities on global food security.

Third, be more transparent with budget reporting across agencies and submit a whole-of-government budget to Congress instead of the agency-by-agency budget breakdown that is currently in the Global Food Security Strategy. Congress should be able to understand the full scope of food security programming. Budget support should come with being a partner agency, even if there are wide gaps between smaller and larger agencies. Funding, just as programming, should be not be dominated by the lead agency for efforts to be truly whole-of-government.

Kimberly Flowers is the executive director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College. She is also a non-resident senior associate for the Global Food Security Program and Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions 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).

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Kimberly Flowers
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Humanitarian Agenda and Global Food Security Program