For those who missed it, it appears as though USAID recently and clandestinely tried to establish a twitter-like service inside Cuba. Contractor documents reveal a CIA-like plan to start the program up with innocuous postings but later introduce political content in order to organize “smart mobs” and “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
On the pro side, an admirable goal. The United States has long used USAID to help people self-organize against odious regimes. This happened during the Cold War, of course, and most notably the organization played a significant role in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. But it also helped tip over Vladimir Voronin in Moldova, a role that was not at all secret even at the time.
I can’t blame USAID for wanting to give it a go in Cuba. The agency appears to have crossed the line from discreet into covert distinction, but the line is fuzzy. It is hard to operate openly in closed societies. A close personal friend has seen the torture scars on an Otpor member who was caught organized protests against Milosevic. The Castro brothers are no less oppressive. So even though the secrecy was ultimately counterproductive, I would cut the agency some slack in that respect.
This plan was moronic.
You can sum it up as follows. (1) USAID money, (2) Twitter in Cuba, (3) ????, (4) Democracy!
The goal was unclear beyond “get young Cubans on social media.” There was no way to scale up. There was no exit strategy. USAID employed a sketchy contractor using an even sketchier subcontractor. There was little to no oversight within USAID or the State Department. (We appear to have trusted the contractors to stay quiet, but we did not trust our own internal watchdogs.) In the process, we managed to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cuba’s state telecoms operator.
You might think that USAID would have a strong bench of people who have carried out this sort of operation. But none of them seem to have been involved. My discussions with people connected to American aid work chalk this up to a series of systemic problems with the agency. First, it has a short institutional memory: salaries are low, so the best people tend to leave for the private sector. Often they leave to become contractors with the agency ... but the contractors don’t talk to each other. Second, there is regional stovepiping: the Latin American experts don’t talk to the Eastern European ones, etcetera. Finally, there is a lot of contractor capture, and that clearly happened here: the contractor tail wagged the USAID dog.
One sad possibility is that USAID kept this ridiculous operation alive longer than it should have in order to suck up to Congressperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who chaired House Foreign Affairs in the last Congress. I could sympathize with that if I thought it would actually buy the agency any credit with the Republican house majority. Sadly, I don’t. And not telling Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) about the operation? That was probably USAID head Rajiv Shah trying to be cunning. Only it was not cunning. It was stupid.
The overall impression is very Amateur Hour.
I am not impressed with Director Shah’s vision of turning USAID into a stepped-up version of the Gates Foundation, where government money leverages private financing for private ventures. Contrary to the New York Times headline, Shah’s vision is not a “switch.” Rather, it’s just more of the same outsourcing, with all the loss of oversight and knowledge transfer that outsourcing involves. I saw the result of that up-close-and-personal in Afghanistan and it was not pretty.
I have to agree with my colleagues in the aid world that Secretary Kerry should ask Obama to wait a decent interval, say six months, and then fire Director Shah. I’m sure that Shah will make a great Congressman. Maybe he’ll even make a great executive someday. But right now he should not be running this nation’s premier aid agency.