Global Priorities

Harvard International Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Global Priorities


The United States and International Aid

J. Brian Atwood is a prominent figure in the US Foreign Service, where he has served since 1966. He joined the State Department in 1972, first as legislative assistant for foreign policy and defense and later as assistant secretary of state in 1979. He became Dean of Professional Studies and Academic Affairs at the Foreign Service Institute in 1981. Between 1993 and 1999, Brian Atwood served as administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and directed the implementation of the United States' policy of economic and humanitarian relief. Mr. Atwood is currently Executive Vice President of Citizens Energy Corporation and Director of Citizens International, a new enterprise that offers private-sector development assistance to developing nations. He is also Lecturer in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW: Development aid does not enjoy a great deal of popularity in the United States. What was the motivation behind your decision to join the Foreign Service and dedicate yourself to international development?

I was stimulated to enter the field of international relations at age 16, when I was sent to Luxembourg as a field-service foreign exchange student. I was for the first time exposed directly to foreigners' views of US policy and I understood then the need for the United States to conduct itself in the international arena with more humility. When I entered Boston University I did a great deal of coursework in international affairs. I joined the Foreign Service in 1966.

I believe that every diplomat and anyone with an interest in diplomacy should be aware of the importance of international aid work. I became involved with it during my first tour of duty in [Africa's] Cote d'Ivoire, where I met embassy personnel and USAID field workers who were involved in the campaign for the eradication of smallpox. Back in the late '60s, this campaign attracted a great deal of support and was very successful. Later I dedicated most of my work to the development of democratic institutions. There is a general belief that democracy will always be fragile in poor countries; to that I used to reply that democracy allows for so many different approaches that there must be a way to help every country adopt democratic institutions. Over time, however, I learned that the issue facing developing countries is that the people living in emerging democracies always have high expectations of their governors, expectations that are usually unmet. This leads to the ascension of demagogues. I used to give as an example Alan Garcia of Peru who, two decades ago, won a presidential election on his campaign against capitalist corruption but was later driven out of office [in 1985] under corruption charges himself.

Speaking of corruption, it seems that this is a significant problem in most developing nations. Looking back, how successful has USAID been at preventing or eradicating corruption?

Corruption is certainly the cancer of the developing world because it inevitably limits or drives away private investors. It is important to keep in mind that, when talking of corruption, we are referring not only to individuals but also to institutions. For example, President [Olusegun] Obasanjo of Nigeria has made an honest and open effort to democratize the country and to attract investors, but because there is a general mistrust of the institutional framework of Nigeria, his initiative has not been successful. Speaking from an investor's perspective, as former administrator of USAID, I see the need for caution when making an investment. USAID would lose credibility if it turned out that the American taxpayers' money was misused by a foreign government. This is precisely why USAID uses so many institutional safeguards and employs its own auditors. But sometimes not even the audit process is sufficient, as proved to be the case in Indonesia, where corruption undercut the entire aid program. …

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