USAID rudderless? – implications for malaria

A front page headline in the Washington Post today worried that, “Leadership Vacancy Raises Fears About USAID’s Future.” Although the previous administration began the process of absorbing USAID into the State Department, it at least created the President’s Malaria Initiative, an inter-agency partnership housed within USAID that boosted USAID’s worldwide technical leadership in malaria control.

Leaving the USAID Directorship post vacant for over 6 months contradicts the State Department’s intentions to continue to pursue strong leadership in health and development. This is expecially true in the field of malaria that is facing some serious deadlines and targets in 2010.

Various excuses of this leadership lapse have been offered, according to the Post, including the new administration’s detailed vetting process that discourages potential candidates for the Directorship.  If the administration really believes, as it is quoted as believing, that development is an important part of diplomacy, then why does the vacancy persist?  It certainly gives room for fears that this administration may finish the job started by the previous one of swallowing US development efforts under the political aims of diplomacy, threatening the credibility and independence of US leadership in the health and development arena.

Health, and particularly malaria, do not feature much in the Post article, even though the Secretary of State’s first stop is Kenya, one of the key PMI countries. The State Department’s own briefing on the trip to Africa also does not emphasize health or mention malaria. If health has any role in the Secretary’s 11-country visit, it does not reflect in the travel diary on the State Department’s website which says, “Throughout her trip, the Secretary will reaffirm the commitment of the United States to building new partnerships to promote responsible governance, economic opportunity, and shared responsibility.” So are health and development really components of the current State Department’s diplomatic goals?

This is certainly not to say that such goals of the current visit are not important – resolution of Kenya’s discord over its presidential elections and peace in Somalia are urgent issues. The visit simply reasserts concerns expressed in the Post article that without strong leadership for USAID, the health and development agenda may get lost, and thereby, threaten the ability of the U.S. to contribute in a timely and meaningful manner to achieve the 2010 Roll Back Malaria targets.

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