Skip to main content

by Mark G. Wentling

U.S. missions abroad tend to adhere to a basic organizational structure, with an ambassador, deputy chief of mission, political, economic, management, consular and public diplomacy offices. While many embassies, especially those in Least Developed Countries (LDCs), also include development specialists from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), more focus on high-impact development assistance is needed by the poorest countries.

Ideally, U.S. missions in seriously underdeveloped countries should be organized in such a way as to focus on developmental progress. For example, when it comes to appointing ambassadors to LDCs, consideration should be given to those qualified to oversee and participate in a development program aimed at moving the host country up the ranks of the UN’s human development index (HDI).

Defining Least Developed Countries

In late 2020, the UN classified forty-six countries as LDCs. Thirty-three of these countries are in Africa. Since 1971, the UN has used three broad criteria to classify countries as LDCs: level of poverty, human resource weaknesses and economic vulnerability. The UN reviews its LDC rankings every three years. Only a half dozen countries have graduated from the LDC ranks since 1994.

If a country remains on the LDC list for decades, this is a strong indication that traditional development assistance does not work. A new assistance approach is needed to demonstrate that the U.S. genuinely cares about the plight of the impoverished people living in these countries. By focusing more resources on the poorest countries, the U.S. seizes the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it wants the development assistance process to work and is serious about reducing the high level of poverty in LDCs. U.S. interests in maintaining a peaceful world are also served by helping these countries remain stable.

U.S. assistance funds and staff are stretched thin across many activities in a large number of countries. Unless available funds and staff concentrate in an increased manner on those sectors that LDCs need to advance, U.S. assistance will make little, if any, difference in the development status of a country. As far as this author is concerned, if U.S. development assistance activities do not reduce poverty and advance the status of a country up the human development ladder, that assistance has failed.

U.S. missions in least developed countries should be restructured to focus on those indicators that prevent the host country from progressing to a higher level of development. This means having a mission strategy that emphasizes the provision of development assistance, staffing that reflects this ‘development’ orientation, and the funding required to operate such a mission.

Under this structure, an ambassador who is well-versed in development assistance would lead a mission team composed of the technical specialists required to advance the mission’s strategy. Currently, the Department of State works off a four-year Integrated Country Strategy (ICS) at each mission while USAID uses a five-year Country Development and Cooperation Strategy (CDCS). In place of these, missions in least developed countries would be guided by a single integrated strategy aimed at ways in which U.S. assistance can have the most impact in moving a country to a higher development stage.

Where the U.S. government has strategic interests in a LDC that fall outside development and humanitarian parameters, these interests need to be described at the Washington level and an exception justified by an interagency committee as to why a wider strategic approach should be taken. Dealing with realities on the ground, may present other priorities in order to maintain peace and stability in an LDC, but focus on what an LDC needs to advance should not be diluted.

U.S. Government Interests

During my 50 years of working in Africa, I came to the conclusion that the U.S. government’s main interest should be to lift these lowest-rung countries out of the depths of poverty. Focusing on the development interests of the host country is in keeping with the traditional U.S. humanitarian spirit. In Africa, where over 70 percent of the LDC countries are located, this also respects the fact that an important portion of the U.S. population traces its origin to Africa.

Least Developed Countries, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Countries not on the UN’s LDC list should be graduated from U.S. assistance programs and those resources transferred to augment funding provided to assist LDC countries. Although exceptions could be made, concluding a final list will entail tough decisions. In Africa, this approach would involve closing assistance programs in such countries as Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria and South Africa. I know firsthand all these countries and understand that there may be good reasons to keep assistance programs going in there, but I would still argue for concentrating funding and staff in LCDs.

U.S. Embassy Structure

Currently, an ambassador and a deputy, usually career State Department foreign service officers (FSO), lead most small U.S. missions. Other members of the country team normally include the following FSOs: political, economic, consular, public diplomacy, security, administrative and consular. Some of these services may be provided by missions in neighboring countries.

Many missions also house other U.S. agencies. In LDCs, the most prominent among these agencies are USAID and the U.S. Centers of Disease Control (CDC). Since 2004, some LDC missions also have received substantial resources provided by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), but these resources have not changed any country’s LDC status. Most MCC funding involved big infrastructure or electrical power projects. It is rare for MCC to focus on the education and health sectors, where improvement is most needed to move development forward.

Although this basic organizational arrangement can vary, in decades of working abroad I have not seen any fundamental changes in this staffing pattern. Even as new embassy buildings were constructed over the past decade to bring mission staff under one roof, the staffing structure within these new edifices has stayed basically the same. At the same time, these more secure and expensive diplomatic fortresses make it difficult to have beneficial relationships with the local community.

Focus on Development

If we are serious about focusing on development in LDCs, it is time to change the structure we use to go about it. For starters, the ambassador and the head of USAID, or another participating agency, in a LDC mission should be one and the same person. The head of the mission should be surrounded by a team focused on a revised strategy that aims to contribute in a way that advances the host country to a higher development stage. This team needs to be fluent in the national language of the host country and familiar with the development challenges it faces.

Such a team would include two deputies. One would oversee the management of the bilateral relationships and American citizen services. The other would be occupied with promoting good relations with other donor agencies and actors in the host country who are implementing development assistance activities, helping the team avoid duplication of other donor and host country development activities.

Without a different approach, most least developed countries will remain mired forever on the UN’s LDC list. Most LDCs have occupied the ranks of this list since the UN first established it over fifty years ago. Something new needs to be done to unlock their enduring entrapment among the poorest of poor countries.

Restructuring Steps

The first step would be for the State Department and USAID to engage in an interagency process to designate LDC missions. Once designated, these missions would get special consideration in terms of funding and staffing priorities. Existing country strategies should be replaced by an overarching new strategy that focuses on development, using as necessary relative sources.

This process would delineate the staffing pattern so each human resource slot is filled with people who have the requisite development experience and sufficient knowledge of the geographic area, culture and language. Each LDC country would be designated by the State Department as a ‘crisis country.’ This exceptional designation is usually reserved for countries recovering from a major disaster such as severe drought in the Horn of Africa or the Sahel.

Under this criterion, a ‘crisis country’ is eligible for the broad application of ‘notwithstanding’ official assistance regulations, helping it avoid much of the bureaucracy, reporting requirements and the Congressional earmarks involved with providing aid. This designation would also put all concerned on an emergency footing. The head of the mission would be delegated the authority to approve development assistance activities and the funding and staff to implement them.

Missions in least developed countries should do their own work using direct hire employees and host country nationals and not rely on expensive offshore contract firms, which can have overheads in the 25 to 30 percent range. Doing this would save money and make the mission team more responsible for the development assistance activities it designs and implements.

Given that the main developmental indicators holding LDCs back are low scores in the education and health sectors, most, if not all, of these missions should concentrate on improving performance in these sectors. Unless adult literacy rates are raised and more children receive a quality primary school education, especially girls, a country cannot advance. Similarly, priority needs to be given to improving the quality and delivery of basic health services, including child nutrition, potable drinking water and better sanitation.

Much will depend on the availability of U.S. funding and staffing resources. There are many good things to do, but a narrow focus over a long period of time is required if a lasting impact is to be achieved.

Host Country Agreement

A high level of commitment by the host government to a given activity is necessary for its success. No activity should move forward without an explicit written request from a high-level official in the host government. This letter should describe the form and frequency of host government contributions and involvement. An agreement signed between the mission and the designated host government official would spell out in detail the conditions of U.S. assistance.

Any host government that does not satisfy assistance requirements should not be assisted in any way. This may sound callous, but history has proven that for a true partnership to work both parties must be prepared to commit to staying the course for the long haul. After all, it may take ten to fifteen years to begin to see any assistance results.

Many missions in underdeveloped countries are faced with instability in their host countries or parts thereof. Yet at least twenty LDCs are sufficiently stable to permit forward progress. No development progress is possible without peace and stability. Humanitarian aid may help to save lives and reduce human suffering in areas riddled with conflict, but the host country must request such assistance. Any assistance should not be solely a tool of U.S. foreign policy but reflect a priori a genuine concern of the USG to help less fortunate people.

All these subjects and assistance parameters would be described and analyzed in the new LDC mission strategic document. This relatively brief document would define the roles of each agency working in a LDC, including whether or not a given agency should be present in an LCD mission.

The mission team would monitor and report annually the results, or lack thereof, under this new strategy. To avoid diverting the focus of the LCD mission from its main aims, this would be the only report required of it.

The world is changing quickly. Global changes have been accelerated by Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. The world’s economic stability has been upset. Violence and the displacement of people are growing. Climate change is disrupting even the best of intentions. It’s past time for U.S. missions in LDCs to change the way they work.

Nothing is simple about providing assistance to least developed countries, but there are some things that can be done to make U.S. development assistance more straightforward and, hopefully, more effective. Without changes in the way we operate in these countries, another fifty years could pass with little or no progress.End.


Mark G. Wentling retired from the Senior Foreign Service in 1996, after serving as USAID’s principal officer in six African countries. He has worked in Africa for the Peace Corps, nongovernmental organizations, and as a contract employee for USAID. He has published eight books, including a three-volume Africa Memoir released in 2020. A ninth book, Kansas Kaleidoscope, is scheduled for publication in August 2022.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.