USAID turned 50 today. The agency began in the first year of the Kennedy Presidency and has been an important part of his legacy and a symbol perhaps of American optimism and hopeful leadership in development. It was a product of those years between Sputnik and Vietnam when America felt challenged, but seems to have retained a certain expectation of effectiveness, and faith in the ability to set and achieve goals as a country. 1961 was the independence era in Africa, and the time of the “airlift” of students including Wangari Maathai and President Obama’s father to the United States. It was also in the rising time of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and its is clear in hindsight that we were not yet fully prepared psychologically for complete African sovereignty in the context of the Cold War–but at least it was a beginning.
Walter Cronkite, a worldly man of Middle America, turned 45 on USAID’s first day. As part of a generation born during one World War and in his 20s in the next, Cronkite I expect would have approved. The next year he became the anchor of the CBS Evening News and soon “The Most Trusted Man in America”. (This was before the Rupert Murdoch era in the United States . . .)
In 2011, the Cold War is long over. Osama bin Laden is dead. Democracy is stirring in the most unlikely places and the world is far more prosperous than it was 50 years ago. We have been learning a lot about development. We are starting to feel challenged again by a rising China–perhaps this will provide the inspiration and motivation for a renewed ability to look hopefully beyond the next election cycle into a future in which we have helped to solve some of the world’s problems.
From the official history at the USAID website:
On September 4, 1961, the Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, which reorganized the U.S. foreign assistance programs including separating military and non-military aid. The Act mandated the creation of an agency to administer economic assistance programs, and on November 3, 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
USAID became the first U.S. foreign assistance organization whose primary emphasis was on long-range economic and social development assistance efforts. Freed from political and military functions that plagued its predecessor organizations, USAID was able to offer direct support to the developing nations of the world. (emphasis added)