Master of Public Administration graduate uses capstone project to suggest reform to foreign assistance

Share this

Norwich University's Master of Public Administration program provided an opportunity for three-time political appointee Susan Fertig-Dykes to develop a thesis based on her years of work in international development: that U.S. foreign assistance has been compromised, rather than advanced, by reforms made by the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.

As chief of the Democracy and Governance division in the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Fertig-Dykes didn't want to quit her job to attend school full time, so she was excited to hear about the online pubic administration program at Norwich's College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

A three-time political appointee in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Fertig-Dykes served in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) before her position at USAID.

According to Fertig-Dykes, most foreign assistance was channeled through USAID until the 1990s. The agency received funds and technical specialists carried out its mission around the world. Under the Clinton administration, however, USAID experienced significant reductions in force and domestic government agencies were brought into foreign assistance work.

But domestic agencies such as the Department of Justice were not designed for foreign aid work. Often their involvement meant more, sometimes duplicative programs, and the dispersion of funding across so many agencies led to less robust programs and decreased effectiveness across the board. Instead of fixing the problem, the Bush administration exacerbated it by creating "coordinators" to manage aid efforts by the new players.

"You'd have a coordinator come in to coordinate the different agencies working on a particular aspect of assistance," said Fertig-Dykes. "He'd start off with a staff of eight to 10 people. Within a year, he'd have a staff of 80 people."

"And in the end, the domestic agencies were still doing work overseas they weren't created or equipped to do in the first place," she said.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Fertig-Dykes acquired a commitment to international work from an early age. She lived with her parents on the islands until 1961, when she moved to the United States for college. Initially studying communications, she spent much of her career engaged in international development work and democracy promotion.

Before her years of government service, she started a lifelong affiliation with the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), serving with them in Venezuela in 1972. In 1993, Fertig-Dykes joined her husband, a USAID employee - now deceased, in the Balkans.

From 1993 to 1997, she worked with ICA training facilitators and led multiethnic initiatives in Croatia and Bosnia. In 1997, she joined the staff of World Vision, a faith-based international non-governmental organization (NGO), to increase cooperation between local governments and local NGOs. In 1999, she returned to the U.S. with World Vision as an international recruiter responsible for staffing overseas programs funded by U.S. government grants.

But it was in her last assignment, as a technical team leader at USAID, that Fertig-Dykes saw firsthand the ways in which budget fragmentation and added bureaucracy compromised the cost efficiency and program effectiveness of foreign assistance.

What's the solution?

"Undo the reforms," Fertig-Dykes said. "Foreign assistance should be a cabinet-level agency, reporting directly to the president. USAID should be autonomous, not linked with the State Department (as it is now) or forced to give chunks of its funding and programming to domestic agencies that aren't made for foreign-assistance work. And the only way to accomplish this is to enact a new Foreign Assistance Act to replace the much-amended and woefully outdated FAA of 1961."

This was the central thesis of her capstone project for Norwich's public administration program, which she started in September 2007 and finished in February 2009. She hopes to have her thesis published, and credits Norwich with providing her an outlet to formulate and research her ideas.

According to David Atwood, her former supervisor at USAID, Fertig-Dykes felt that earning an advanced degree would help her become more effective in her career.

"She has a passion for democracy promotion, and she thought a public administration degree would be ideal because of her communications and administrative background," said Atwood. "She felt it would help her in making government services work better for citizens."

Now that she has completed her coursework, Fertig-Dykes still feels that way.

"I really enjoyed [the public administration program]. It was very intense, but I enjoyed it," she said. "It's important to have a quality program for professionals who work full-time."