Gayle Smith finally confirmed as head of USAID

Gayle Smith (Credit: Bread for the World)

After months of waiting in limbo, Gayle Smith officially assumed leadership of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) after the Senate confirmed her nomination late Monday. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held up the nomination for seven months to protest the White House nuclear negotiations with Iran. Aid groups quickly lined up to laud the confirmation, but the new administrator also has some her critics.

“The selection of Gayle Smith as the new administrator for USAID demonstrates a significant step forward in the United States’ continued efforts to improve global development and respond to humanitarian crises,” said Carolyn Miles, head of Save the Children, and Mark Shriver, Children Action Network president, in a joint statement. “We have valued our partnership with USAID and believe Smith’s extensive experience will help her play a vital role furthering our mission to end poverty by serving as a champion and advocate to work with the public, Congress and within the administration to accelerate U.S. efforts on these issues.”

Smith is a former freelance journalist and aid worker. She is best known as one of the co-founders of the advocacy group the Enough Project, and as an adviser on international development in the Clinton and Obama administrations. In her current role as a senior director for the National Security Council, she was involved in the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Champions of Smith’s point to her experience across government and the nonprofit sectors as evidence that she has a strong understanding of international development. She is easily one of the most qualified people to take the post. But it is also her long ties to Washington that concern some. And her most pointed critics take issue with her willingness to work closely with authoritarian regimes. They are concerned that she will turn a blind eye to human rights violations in U.S. development partners like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Myanmar.

Veteran journalist Howard French was one of the most vocal critics following the announcement of her nomination in late April.

The thrust of French’s concern is the lack of change in U.S. foreign policy. The Obama administration as a whole has come under criticism for what some see as its poor engagement with Africa. Trips to the continent during his second term and some major initiatives helped to right a policy stance that essentially ignored sub-Saharan Africa.

“Ultimately, the United States cannot afford to ignore Africa,” Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development wrote in Foreign Affairs. “And rather than viewing the continent as a problem to be solved, the next administration should do something radical: treat Africa with the attention it now deserves.”

Smith takes over from Rajiv Shah. He, too, faced delays to his nomination at the start of the Obama administration. Shah is credited with shifting the agency away from solely funding contractors to supporting initiatives that partner with the private sector and fund evidence-based solutions. Those are best embodied by the programs Power Africa and Feed the Future. But he faced obstacles in the form of a Congress not keen on U.S. foreign aid. And covert programs in Cuba to foment unrest and spur on democratic change were exposed during his tenure.

With just about a year left in office, the Obama administration is faced with major humanitarian and development challenges. West Africa is still trying to end the Ebola outbreak, the Syrian refugee crisis is now a global problem, Myanmar and Cuba are slowly opening up to the West and a new global agenda is in place to end extreme poverty.

Smith has the opportunity to helm USAID at a crucial time. What she can and will be able to do remains uncertain.

“We look forward to working with Ms. Smith to continue the modernization efforts afoot at USAID,” said Ray Offenheiser, head of Oxfam America, in a statement. “Ms. Smith will bring a powerful voice, vision and leadership to the agency, ensuring strong American leadership in fighting poverty around the world.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.