Know Your Records: USAID, RG 286, Part I

By Alfie Paul

The National Archives has a program of presentations called Know Your Records through which archivists, volunteers, and others share their knowledge of our records with you, the public.  It is a great way for interested individuals to learn what we have and how to use what we have to their advantage.

The Text Message, in part, is supposed to have the same mission–sharing our knowledge of NARA’s textual holdings with the public.  It has successfully done that for over a year now highlighting interesting or topical records.  Often, but not always, the focus has been at the record or series level.  I thought it would be great if we could highlight something at the Record Group (RG) level that we are actively working on.

At any one time there are several Record Groups being processed between the civilian and military textual units.  For instance, currently we at Archives II are processing Record Group 286, Record Group 131 (in planning stages), Record Group 306, and other smaller side projects.  All interesting Record Groups with interesting and informative records.  Yet, as a processing archivist with the job of preparing series for public access, I don’t–we don’t–always have time to search for that gem worthy of writing about.  But all records matter, not just the gems.

With that in mind I will be presenting Record Group 286: Records of the Agency for International Development [AID].  My colleague, Alan Walker, earlier described processing the records for the overseas Missions of USAID.  He has diligently been working with those records exclusively while I have been sorting through the records of USAID headquarters here in Washington.

This project began with close to 1500 individual undescribed entries.  Unlike many other Record Groups, RG 286 had no preliminary inventories or even basic box lists from which to begin.  We simply had to open boxes, walk the stacks, and sort through those entries.  Part of what a processing archivist does is to make processed series out of what seems like chaos.  This involves pulling together records that were accessioned separately and, sometimes, separating those that were accessioned together.  To date, we have processed almost 900 new series that have been entered into our Archival Research Catalog (ARC).

The United States Agency for International Development was established on November 4, 1961 from several predecessor agencies (RG 469) formed as World War II ended and as we began our effort to rebuild our allies in Europe.  It started with the Marshall Plan in Europe, but developed into US technical, financial, and military aid efforts around the world.

President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act which has been amended several times over the years to meet the changing needs of the developing world.  The agency itself has also evolved.  Through the 1960s and 70s, USAID was under the Department of State.  In 1979, the International Development Cooperation Agency (IDCA) was formed and USAID became a part of it until, finally, USAID became an independent agency in 1998.  You can find more on the history here.

The records often reflect the history of the agency and its continual evolution throughout the years from the Marshall Plan to Point Four and, finally, the birth and growth of USAID.  They fall broadly into two categories: records from the geographic bureaus and those from what aid called their functional bureaus.  The regional bureaus comprise the major areas of US involvement in the world: Asia, the Near East, Africa, Latin America, and Europe.  The functional bureaus are those that oversee major program areas like food, democracy, humanitarian assistance, or health.  There are also administrative bureaus that oversee policy formulation, management, and the nuts and bolts of running an agency.

The offices in these several bureaus were often the repository for official copies of records generated in the field.  Researchers should note, for instance, that Project Records are temporary for the Missions but not in the Headquarters.  So, if looking for a project overseen by the Mission to Afghanistan the records are most likely in those of the Bureau for the Near East.

The next post will address what you can expect to find in the records and the best way to research in RG 286.

4 thoughts on “Know Your Records: USAID, RG 286, Part I

  1. Alfie:
    Thanks so much for the shout out to KYR! I know Andrea has asked you about doing a session, so we’re looking forward to working with you. Thanks again,

  2. My dad was a foreign aid officer from the Marshall Plan until he retired in 1962. I’m eager to learn about some of the projects he worked on. I hope your posts will help me do that.

  3. @Diane, no problem. One NARA!
    @Jill, I hope so too. It’s actually thrilling to me to see your comment and that what we’re doing might help someone. Thanks for posting.

  4. Alfie and his group have it harder than us folks working the Missions records, because they have to figure out such lovely office acronyms as OPIC/FMD/DSR (and that’s all for one office). Still, it’s very satisfying to glean clarity from this confusing mass.

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