WASHINGTON — In her first policy speech as the leader of the government’s humanitarian arm, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Gayle Smith said the sometimes “hateful” rhetoric in the growing refugee crisis must be replaced with patience and long-term investment.
“Change takes time and hard work. It also takes patience” said Smith, who became administrator of USAID in November, referring to the Syrian civil war. “The cost of impatience is far too great.”
Smith, a former national security aide to President Barack Obama, said USAID needs to maintain a “steady drumbeat” against corruption and human rights violations amid global emergencies — from war in the Middle East to the consequences of climate change.
The greatest impediment to relieving humanitarian need, Smith said, is foreign governments’ refusal to allow access, which has been a problem in Syria up until the negotiated cessation of hostilities at the beginning of February. Around the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry announced nearly $601 million in additional aid to Syria and its neighboring companies, bringing the total assistance to more than $5.1 billion.
Forecasting her approach to her coming year in charge of the agency, Smith said USAID will keep on a course of not just injecting money into ailing countries but supporting long-term economic improvement.
But in Syria, the situation is so dire that the only thing the international community can do is provide humanitarian relief, said George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. Progress may take longer than politicians typically have patience for, Ingram said.
“The media and the political system jump from one crisis to the next and forgets about the last one before the crisis is fully resolved,” Ingram said. “It may take 20 years to rebuild Syria to where it was five years ago.”
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said he worried that the growing demand of global crises has expanded USAID assistance to unsustainable levels. From 2000 to 2010, the agency’s total aid more than doubled from about $22 billion to nearly $51 billion.
During his opening remarks to Smith’s speech, Perdue highlighted the enormity of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, where 22 million people — about half of the country’s pre-war population — has been forced out of their homes. However, Perdue said USAID must prioritize which areas to focus on to keep spending at a reasonable level.
“We can’t hold the hand of every person that’s displaced,” he said.
Despite the Senate gridlock that delayed her confirmation, Smith said both parties in the Congress have supported international development. Her Senate confirmation was delayed by seven months due to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement that he would block approval of State Department nominees in protest of the Iran nuclear deal.
“In no single meeting did I need to make the case that development was important. That’s a big change,” Smith said. “That’s the way Washington should work.”