American Progress: Build a National Consensus on Development and Dump Smith-Mundt

USAID U.S. national security is dependent on more than physical security secured through military or law enforcement powers.  It is also dependent and based on capacity building, economic development, humanitarian aid, and global health issues.  Public diplomacy is necessarily involved in all of these for the purpose of strengthening the country. 

To this end, the Center for American Progress laments the "restrictions" imposed on the U.S. Agency for International Development by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 in enlisting the support of Americans to understand AID's valuable and worthwhile mission. 

Presidential leadership must be followed by assertive public engagement on the part of civilian development agencies. No one can tell the story of America's global commitment to sustainable development and its contributions to our security better than the people who do the work every day. Yet their ability to do so is restricted by Section 501 of the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (the Smith-Mundt Act), which functionally restricts the ability of USAID to use public dollars to tell its story inside the United States. This legislation should be amended or repealed so that USAID, just like the Department of Defense, can tell the American people about the value of its work and continue to build public support for it.

There's one problem: USAID is not covered by Smith-Mundt, nor is the Department of Defense.  USAID's failure in public diplomacy that engages a global audience, including Americans, is not a result of a Smith-Mundt prophylactic.  The truth is USAID operates independently America's public diplomacy efforts.

The 2003 GAO Report on U.S. Public Diplomacy, based on a GAO survey of State's public affairs officers, gives a better context on the institutional ills of American public diplomacy. Some of the most important elements of this GAO report were survey questions not referenced by the report or its conclusions.  For example:

  • [Does the public affairs officer] Coordinate with USAID or the US Military?
    • 42% "very much" to a "great extent" with USAID
    • 59% "very much" to a "great extent" with the U.S. military

The Center for American Progress's statement is yet one more reason we must have a symposium on Smith-Mundt to discuss Congressional intent and what the Act actually covers.

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