Amid Ethiopia Elections 2015, Obama's USAID Nominee Gayle Smith Slammed For Supporting Africa's Repressive Regimes

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Gayle Smith, President Barack Obama's nominee to run the U.S. Agency for International Development, boasts a glowing list of credentials after spending two decades in Africa as an aid worker and award-winning journalist.

But to critics, she is a sympathizer of repressive regimes in Africa who has done little to improve living conditions for people in impoverished war zones.

Since Obama’s April 30 announcement, a growing number of critics have come forward against Smith’s appointment, which could further stall her pending Senate confirmation.

Her nomination comes amid another oppressive election season in Ethiopia, where Smith has been accused of indulging an autocratic government with millions of U.S. aid dollars. Meanwhile, her failure to intervene on regional inter-state rivalries has led to deadly conflicts, which critics said should be called into question before she’s approved to lead USAID and manage the agency’s billion-dollar budget.

“She has as good of a claim to the job as a lot of other people,” said Herman Cohen, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “But there were major Africa policy blunders under the Clinton and Obama administrations that she should be asked about."

Smith, 59, has served under the Obama administration as special assistant to the president and senior director for development and democracy on the National Security Council staff since 2009.

She also served under the Clinton administration as special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council from 1998 to 2001, as well as chief of staff and administrator of the USAID from 1994 to 1998. In 2007, Smith co-founded the Enough Project, a nonprofit organization to end genocide and crimes against humanity. She previously lived and worked in Africa for 20 years as an aid worker and a journalist.

If confirmed by the Senate, Smith will succeed USAID administrator Rajiv Shah in leading the U.S. government's humanitarian response. The USAID has had its share of controversies under Shah, who has run the agency since 2009.

Last year, the Associated Press reported a USAID-operated Twitter account was aimed at encouraging young Cubans to revolt against Cuba’s communist government. The agency was also accused of placing hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars at risk of fraud, waste and abuse due to a lack of oversight and monitoring. Shah announced in December he would step down from his post by mid-February.

"The great challenge for anyone who takes this job is how to make U.S. assistance more efficient, less bureaucratic and more relevant to the recipient," Vicki Huddleston, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa, said in an email. "Gayle has the president's ear, so perhaps she can begin the process of streamlining both the assistance process and the way in which U.S. assistance is carried out by NGOs and private firms."

As the administrator of USAID, Smith would be charged with directing the agency’s $20 billion budget to tackle humanitarian disasters around the world. But some critics raised concerns that Smith will use these funds to coddle friendly dictators in strategic locations, like Ethiopia, rather than enforce democratization and encourage real development in Africa.

“No African country has developed hooked to the life-supported system of U.S. aid,” Alemayehu Mariam, a constitutional lawyer and a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, wrote in a blog post for the Hill. “Smith will oversee the administration of billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Africa if confirmed. Her long and chummy relationship with Africa’s strongmen will make her a weak advocate of human rights, the rule of law and good governance on the continent.”

While serving under former President Bill Clinton, Smith, along with her colleague Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the time and now the White House national security adviser, were mediators in an ultimately failed attempt to reduce tensions between rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia. Shortly after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia, the two countries returned to war in 1998.

 

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