Thursday, January 26, 2017 - 14:15
Urban Institute, Washington, District of Columbia
Presented By: Young Professionals in Development Network (YPN)

2017 in Transition Discussion Series - Presidential Transition in Washington: Weathering Change in International Development

To view a recording of the event, please click here. Please note that access to livestreaming and videos of our events is usually reserved for SID-Washington members only. If you would like to see videos of future events and are not a SID-Washington member, you can join here.

Join us for the first session in our 2017 in Transition Discussion Series on January 26th.

Presidential Transition in Washington:  Weathering Change in International Development 

In a kick-off meeting of SID-Washington's newly formed Young Professionals Network, we are gathering former USAID Administrators and high-ranking State Department officials to discuss the current Presidential Transition and the state of USAID. Andrew Natsios, USAID Administrator from 2001-2006, J. Brian Atwood, USAID Administrator from 1993-1999, and James Kunder, Acting Deputy Administrator from 2006-2009, will muse on their experiences in past transitions and provide their thoughts on the way forward, including one prescription (as laid out in a recent co-authored article in Foreign Affairs Magazine co-authored by Atwood and Natsios) for addressing the challenges facing the agency and the U.S Government both here in Washington and around the developing world: a new Department of International Development. 

Join us for a lively and provocative discussion followed by a reception sponsored by Palladium and Tetra Tech.

Kate Thompson, Principal, Deloitte Consulting and SID-Washington Board Member will moderate the discussion.

Please note, this event kicks off our new Young Professionals Network (YPN) and is open to the public. However, future YPN events will be members-only ($45/year for Young Professionals).

This event is also the first in an important series on the upcoming transition and its impact on the development community. More information on our 2017 in Transition Discussion Series will be available soon.

Katherine Raphaelson, SID Washington, welcomed the attendees and thanked the panelists and moderator for their participation. She presented upcoming events as well as two new programs: the 2017 in Transition Discussion Series and the Young Professionals Network. Ms. Raphaelson then handed the floor over to the moderator, Kate Thompson.

Kate Thompson, Deloitte Consulting, thanked the attendees for their participation. She introduced the panelists, J. Brian Atwood, Andrew Natsios, and James Kunder. Striking an optimistic tone, she opened by noting that transitions offer opportunities to drive through positive and enduring change. Ms. Thompson began by asking speakers to share their insights and stories about what really happens during a presidential transition, starting with Mr. Atwood.

J. Brian Atwood, former USAID administrator, kicked off the discussion by explaining the history and function of USAID’s Office of Transitions Initiatives (OTI). The office’s main mission is reconciliation in post-conflict societies. OTI has become a very important part of what USAID does, and Atwood hopes that the Trump administration— in assessing USAID—discovers some of this. 

James Kunder, former USAID Acting Deputy Administrator, opened with three general observations. First, he acknowledged that the democratic system is meant to reflect the will of the people. While U.S. government transitions are often somewhat clunky and difficult, they accomplish their primary goal: to somehow reflect the will of the people. While he personally disagrees with some of the incoming administration’s policies, he said that this is how the system is supposed to work.

Second, he sees mostly a pattern of continuity over the last 50 years in the form of a sustained American commitment to the development of the world. With this in mind, he suspects that broad themes of development will continue.

Mr. Kunder’s third and final point was that the transition can be seen as an opportunity to revisit basic assumptions about international development—namely, how USAID and development organizations explain their work as it relates to the administration’s concerns about security, terrorism, and violent extremism. He acknowledged that while many people committed to battling poverty may not want to consider themselves counterterrorism operations, Mr. Kunder urged viewing this as an opportunity to explain the significance of U.S. foreign policy at large.

Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator, agreed with Mr. Kunder’s assertion that panicking is not appropriate. He urged the need to take history into account when reacting to the recent transition. In a similar vein, Mr. Natsios emphasized the need to recast USAID development objectives to make them more appealing to those in the realist school of foreign policy.

With this goal in mind, he offered three fundamental arguments for doing so.

  • Highlight USAID’s commitment to building institutions that battle criminal elements, terrorism, trafficking, extremism, etc. in fragile states.
  • Underline USAID’s unique expeditionary nature. They can project American development power to the other side of the world, in a self-contained and effective manner on the ground.
  • Understand the value of USAID’s public diplomacy. When U.S. development programs succeed, they change the international public image of the United States—for example, with higher approval ratings. People see America as a development power, helping with their crises and problems.

Ms. Thompson then posed the following question to the panelists: “How will the Trump administration revise or reset U.S. priorities?”

Mr. Atwood answered by advising the new president to use a “do no harm” approach. Next, he discussed the impact of soft power initiatives on other matters that the administration cares about. In addressing President Trump’s likely priorities, Mr. Atwood mentioned that U.S. leadership will be crucial for the success of the Sustainable Development Goals, but that the system is still very fragmented. With twenty-one agencies and twenty-one different missions, Trump (with his professional background in business) might see consolidation of these agencies as a necessary first step. Ultimately, he stated, we are still in the early stages of transition for USAID.

Mr. Kunder began his statement by addressing the four basic substantive issues of Trump’s campaign platform. For the first two—national security and immigration—he encouraged linking the need for access to education, economic development, governance, etc. to emerging violent threats and migration. USAID projects work to prevent the emergence of desperation and violence.

The third issue—domestic jobs—will be more difficult to tackle. Traditionally, USAID has argued that prosperity abroad means prosperity at home. That philosophy will be a tough sell for this administration—as it seems out of line with “America First” strategic priorities. The fourth and final issue, climate change, will also be a tough sell.

Mr. Natsios shifted the direction of the discussion to global health priorities and infectious diseases. He believes that there will be another pandemic for which the world is not ready, and the U.S. should be at the forefront of this emergency response. This constitutes a major national security threat, so pandemics should be prioritized due to their massive impact on economies and societies. He argued that infectious diseases and health account for a huge portion of USAID’s funding, which must be stressed to the President over and over again.

Driving this point home, he mentioned the huge expansion of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Finally, on an optimistic note, he concluded that we will not see a cut to the disaster budget or the health budget. 

Kate Thompson wrapped up the discussion and turned the floor over to the audience for questions.

For the photos from this event, please click here. 


Kate Thompson
Principal, Deloitte Consulting


Principal, Kunder/Reali Associates
Senior Fellow, Brown University, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Director, Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service

Workgroup Co-Chairs

Program Specialist, Macfadden