By Alfie Paul
So, what is in the RG 286 Records (Record Group 286: Records of the Agency for International Development, 1948 – 2003), and how should researchers approach diving in to the world of USAID?
Most important is for researchers to have as much specific information as possible depending on how specific your research needs are. Knowing specific offices, project names, beneficiary countries or regions, or any other relevant data that will help is key in searching the records. Instead of asking for records about projects in Asia, ask about projects relating to Narcotics Control in Laos (National Archives Identifier 6172175). Names of agency employees are often not going to help, but knowing their capacity in the agency will.
As often as possible we are uploading container lists and file units into ARC allowing deeper intellectual access into the contents of a series. Where a series called Project Files might not be terribly informative, knowing that the series contains a folder labeled “Kenya Rural Private Enterprises Administrative Amendments, etc (National Archives Identifier 6122111),” might be.
For an idea of the types of documents you can expect to see in the files, look at earlier posts on the types of documents used by overseas posts to communicate with the Department of State. Airgrams, telegrams, despatches, memoranda all had very specific functions. USAID worked very closely with the Department of State, used many of the same types of documents, and often paralleled their records management practices until they became an independent agency.
Next, learn as much as you can from our online resources. There is a summary of our holdings here. We have digitized the filing manual here. These are useful for understanding the organization of the files and learning about subject headings you might encounter. Note, however, that USAID offices did not always strictly follow filing schemas, but reviewing the filing manual can aid in pinpointing which folders are more likely to have the information you are seeking.
It might also be useful to look at the disposition schedules for the agency. Not all records of Federal agencies are preserved in the National Archives. The determination of which Federal records are transferred to the National Archives and which Federal records may be destroyed is carried out through the process of appraisal and scheduling. This is a cooperative process involving both the creating agency and NARA that leads to records being assigned a disposition of either permanent or temporary on a disposition schedule. Permanent records are those that have sufficient historical or other value to warrant preservation in the National Archives. Temporary records are those that do not warrant preservation past the time they are needed by the creating agency for administrative, legal, or fiscal purposes. Temporary records are not transferred to the National Archives. The schedules for USAID are generally organized according to office or function and thereunder by series.
The majority of the USAID records that are designated as permanent are some variation of Subject, Program, or Project Files. Generally, records for basic administrative and facilitative functions like procurement, personnel, travel, or individual office management are not preserved.
Subject files are arranged by some subject matter filing scheme or according to something specific to the series and the office, i.e. Subject Files Relating to Africa or Records Related to Narcotics Control in Turkey. Often they are arranged by country or name. Subject Files are where researchers would be more likely to find records concerning the development of policy, high level administration and oversight of the agency, USAID cooperation with Congress and other agencies or outside organizations, and the work of high ranking agency officials.
Subject files can cover a wide arrange of subjects or focus narrowly on one. Other series similar to subject files are: Country Files; Congressional Presentations, Chronological Files; and Correspondence Files.
Program files might be called just that or Program Correspondence. These generally were created by high ranking agency officials and relate to policy, and the documentation of planning, opinions, and decisions of USAID Program staff.
Project Files are really the heart of RG 286. These are case files that document the technical and capital assistance projects at the core of USAID’s mission. These can consist of studies, surveys, reports, proposals, grant administration records, contracts, audits, correspondence, or project evaluations. They are often arranged solely by an agency designated project number, but often include the name of the project or contract recipient. These records might be called simply Project Files, Development Assistance Project Files, Closed Project Files, or Project Files (or Records) Relating to a specific project.
Knowing in which country a project happened or a person worked will help in narrowing down your search for a specific project. Again, projects in the field were overseen by local USAID Missions but the records were maintained by the headquarters Regional Bureau under which that Mission’s country fell.
Note, too, that additional documentation relating to the work and activities of USAID can be found in other record groups. The Department of State is the agency primarily responsible for U.S. foreign policy and its records include documentation relating to the work and activities of USAID. For more information on the records of the Department of State and foreign affairs records in general, please see our Foreign Affairs page. For hints on how to have a good research experience at the National Archives, see this FAQ .