At U.S.A.I.D., Juggling Political Priorities and Pandemic Response

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus was spreading around the world, and officials at the United States Agency for International Development were anxious to rush humanitarian aid to nations in need. But first, they had to settle a debate over American branding and whether it should be displayed on assistance headed to conflict zones.

Political appointees from the White House and the State Department wanted the aid agency’s logo affixed to all assistance packages to show the world how much the United States was sending abroad, even as it grappled with its own outbreak.

Career employees at U.S.A.I.D. argued that the logo and other American symbols could endanger people who delivered or received the aid in countries that are hostile to the United States and where branding exceptions are usually granted.

At the end of the debate this spring, relief workers were allowed to distribute aid without the branding in a handful of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But the discussion, as described by a half-dozen current and former officials at the aid agency and relief workers who were briefed on it, delayed assistance for several weeks to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities as the pandemic began to peak.

It was a cautionary example of the political intervention that has roiled an agency that prides itself as leading the humanitarian response to disasters, conflict and other emergencies around the world.

“As far back as I go, working on these programs, U.S.A.I.D. has really been an extraordinary, respected leader in global health and humanitarian responses,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “To distort that mission is an insult, and it’s really outrageous to me.”

In an interview, Ms. Lowey said she had never seen the aid agency as vulnerable to partisan politics as it was during the Trump administration. She cited the agency’s accusation in May that the United Nations was promoting abortion in its coronavirus response fund as “an example of the Trump administration politicizing a global pandemic to appeal to antichoice voters here in the United States.”

The aid agency’s acting administrator, John Barsa, was selected for the job on March 17, hours before the coronavirus was confirmed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Mr. Barsa, who declined to be interviewed for this article, took extra precautions to prepare for the hurricane season and was quick to assist victims of the deadly explosions in Beirut, Lebanon, last month that have left at least 300,000 people homeless.

But as President Trump campaigns for re-election and the coronavirus has claimed more than 193,000 lives nationwide, the aid agency has been micromanaged by the White House and the State Department. That has prompted critics to say the intervention has slowed pandemic relief efforts to some places, weaponized aid in other areas to chastise Trump administration adversaries and disengaged the United States from the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response.

ImageJohn Barsa, who was selected as the aid agency’s acting administrator in March, in Beirut, Lebanon, after a powerful explosion there last month. 
Credit…Aziz Taher/Reuters

Pooja Jhunjhunwala, the aid agency’s acting spokeswoman, said Mr. Barsa was “uniquely qualified to lead U.S.A.I.D. during this period,” given his past work at the Department of Homeland Security and NASA, dating to the George W. Bush administration.

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Updated 2020-09-12T12:04:20.515Z

“His strength and experience are in knowing how the U.S. government functions, how the various parts of the executive branch interact with each other and how leadership can make a difference,” Ms. Jhunjhunwala wrote in response to questions. “He has increased U.S.A.I.D.’s cooperation and coordination with other U.S. government entities and streamlined decision-making processes internally to improve our response to the pandemic.”

Thomas H. Staal, who worked at the aid agency for 31 years before retiring in 2019, said its relationship with political appointees at the State Department and the White House had historically “waxed and waned” depending on the scope of a crisis and its effects on the United States.

In Iraq in 2003, for example, the State Department and the White House “were very heavily involved in everything we did” in the first years of the American-led invasion and occupation, he said.

But Mr. Staal, whose last job at the aid agency was senior counselor to Mr. Barsa’s predecessor, said he was “very concerned” about proposed budget cuts and contentious staff appointments at U.S.A.I.D. under the Trump administration. He also noted that the agency did not have a representative on the coronavirus task force that was set up by the White House.

“Normally, U.S.A.I.D. would be a major player in that, as we were in all the other major health emergencies around the world,” Mr. Staal said. “That, to me, demonstrates the lack of the support and lack of understanding of the value of U.S.A.I.D.”

Last month, the aid agency distributed a three-page memo to humanitarian aid organizations outlining Chinese government oppression of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. The “information circular,” published on agency letterhead, sought to raise awareness about challenges to democracy, human rights and other freedoms, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times.

It was sent as diplomatic tensions between the Trump administration and the Chinese Communist Party continued to escalate; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a frequent and sharp critic of Beijing.

Attached to the memo was a 19-page advisory, dated July 1, from the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security warning that businesses, academic institutions, investors and other entities that dealt with products linked to Xinjiang “should be aware of reputational, economic and, in some cases, legal risks” of doing so.

That concerned relief workers who feared that they could be cut off from U.S.A.I.D. funding or otherwise targeted for relying on products they had no way of knowing were connected to Xinjiang.

Relief organizations were “confounded and worried,” said Jenny Marron, the director of public policy and government affairs for InterAction, a Washington-based alliance of global aid and advocacy organizations. She noted that the memo had been distributed by grants teams for the aid agency. When confronted by relief workers, the agency later said it merely meant to provide information, not set new conditions for funding.

“The circulars were factually accurate,” Ms. Marron said. “But the real question and concern was, was there a new requirement being asked of partners?”

Some agency employees have raised alarms over other policies that appear to deviate from the norm.

Credit…Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In February, the agency released a 56-second video that directly challenged President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. The video showed burning trucks at the Colombian border that were identified as having been forcibly stopped from delivering humanitarian aid to Venezuela, where widespread hunger and lack of medical supplies are a hallmark of Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian rule.

The video addressed Venezuelans in English and Spanish. “Your perseverance is inspirational and freedom will overcome Maduro’s tyranny,” it said in large type.

The Trump administration has sought Mr. Maduro’s ouster since his widely disputed re-election in 2018. While promoting democratic values is part of the aid agency’s mission, Mr. Staal said it had usually been done quietly, with partners on the ground, to “let somebody else in the U.S. government do the politicization, if you will, the public voice of that.”

The administration is also considering centralizing efforts for pandemic preparedness under an outbreak response coordinator at the State Department, a role that critics say should be led by U.S.A.I.D.

“The immediate response to the pandemic is a humanitarian and disaster response,” said Conor M. Savoy, the executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a bipartisan coalition of international development experts. “That knowledge rests with U.S.A.I.D. They don’t reside at State.”

Perhaps the most evident example of the oversight and demands from the White House is the recent parade of political appointees who have been tapped for senior positions at the aid agency.

Bethany Kozma, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, spoke out in 2016 against President Barack Obama’s “transgender agenda.” She has since helped draft an update to the agency’s gender policy that eliminates mention of transgender people.

The new religious freedom adviser for the agency, Mark Kevin Lloyd, reportedly called Islam a “barbaric cult” while working as a Trump campaign staff member in 2016.

And before Merritt Corrigan joined the agency as its deputy White House liaison, she declared that the United States was “in the clutches of a ‘homo-empire’” that was advancing a “tyrannical L.G.B.T. agenda.” She left the agency in August, after three months on the job, saying she was targeted by congressional Democrats and the news media because of her Christian faith.

In June, Mr. Barsa said the criticism of the three staff members was “unwarranted and malicious.” He also said they were appointed by the White House “to carry out the president’s foreign policy agenda at U.S.A.I.D.”

Another political appointee at the agency, Peter Marocco, told colleagues he was “under pressure” from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to cut U.S.A.I.D. spending, according to another agency official. Mr. Marocco has delayed funding to help Ukraine’s government ward off Russian interference, the official said, even though he oversees efforts to prevent conflict in countries facing political transition.

“To load up an agency with political appointees who do not have the expertise, how then do you expect that agency to perform against its mission?” said Gayle Smith, who was the aid agency’s administrator during the Obama administration.

U.S.A.I.D. declined to comment about Mr. Marocco’s actions, which were first reported by Foreign Policy.

For the first time, and in direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, the aid agency’s Bureau for Global Health has begun to procure and distribute thousands of ventilators abroad. The ventilators have gone to at least 40 countries, including Uzbekistan, India, Colombia and South Africa.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has demanded to know more about where the ventilators are being sent and the White House’s role in that decision.

Influence by the National Security Council “circumvents longstanding U.S.A.I.D. procurement and accountability policies and interjects political agendas” into aid delivery, Mr. Menendez said in a letter to Mr. Barsa in June.

At least 200 ventilators were sent in May to Russia, which is trying to interfere in the presidential election to help Mr. Trump, according to American intelligence assessments released last month.

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