April 15, 2020
By NAHAL TOOSI
Earlier this week, a group of officials with USAID, an agency on the front lines of the rapidly escalating global battle against the coronavirus, found themselves in an increasingly bizarre conversation with some of their colleagues inside the Trump administration.
The officials wanted to know if they could tell America’s longtime global health partners, like the World Health Organization, the international Red Cross and UNICEF, that they were allowed to use U.S. funds to buy coronavirus test kits and certain chemicals. But they couldn’t get a clear answer to their question.
Instead, their colleagues kept responding with cryptic emails saying that those items were on a list that they did not disclose. But they wouldn’t say whether that mysterious list consisted of items that could be purchased or could not be purchased. When pressed for clarity by the flustered USAID officials, the colleagues said they were awaiting guidance on their purchasing questions from higher authorities, presumably the White House.
According to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former USAID officials as well as other people familiar with the agency, the baffling exchange is indicative of how many USAID staffers say they feel frozen as the virus rips through poor countries such as Pakistan and Ecuador. Instead of clear guidance from the Trump administration’s upper echelons, they are getting mixed signals on whether to push or hold back, wasting critical time that could be used to fight the outbreak.
“By the time we get money at the door, we may not able to do anything effective for the coronavirus,” one USAID official said. “This is the dumbest way to try and beat a pandemic.”
The confusion could hardly come at a worse time for USAID. The aid agency, which manages about $20 billion in foreign aid each year, has just begun a leadership transition, with the recent departure of its well-regarded administrator Mark Green and his replacement by an acting chief. USAID also has fended off attempts to slash its budget by a president deeply skeptical of the value of foreign aid. And a White House review of what material USAID gives other countries has compounded the overall uncertainty at the agency.
The tumult comes as the agency gears up to play a critical role in the global fight against Covid-19. The virus is now spreading in developing countries ill-equipped to combat the outbreak on their own but where USAID officials have deep relationships and technical expertise. Agency officials say their effort to stop the virus in those countries is not simply about altruism: Eradicating Covid-19 in places like Africa and Latin America could help prevent the virus from reemerging in the United States and setting off a second wave of deaths and economic collapse.
“USAID has got a presence in scores of countries likely to be hardest hit because their own capabilities are modest,” said Lester Munson, co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a former USAID official. “It’s going to need resources, some judgment, top cover from the State Department and the White House to do the things it needs to do.”