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« Back Again | Main | Back to Iraq »
Wednesday
Feb162011

Notes on USAID

For the last month I’ve been preparing a class on Iraqi politics for military units rotating into Iraq to finish out Operation New Dawn, which transitioned from Operation Iraqi Freedom last October, and which is scheduled to end once the Security Agreement between Iraq and the United States expires on December 31st of this year.

 

Classes ended yesterday and I’m happy to say mine went off rather well, which is a relief since it is my primary deliverable on this contract, and it had been a long time since I spoke in front of a group of about a hundred people. With that complete, it’s time to update the blog.

 

Last month, at the Center for Global Development, (the CNAS of the development community), USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah delivered a major speech entitled: “The Modern Development Enterprise.” The speech, available here, goes into detail about the steps USAID has been taking and will continue to take in order to transform into “the world’s premier aid agency.”

 

Shah began by describing the Obama Administration’s approach to development as one that is “focused on sustainable economic growth, committed to mutual accountability, [and] selective in scope and concentrating foremost on results.” He then went on to discuss in depth how USAID has been executing that approach and highlighted the need for continuing to do so because “development is as critical to our economic prospects and national security as diplomacy and defense.”

 

He mentioned that one way USAID has been attempting to change the way it does business is by focusing more on strengthening the internal government systems of a developing country to provide public services for its citizenry, as opposed to USAID just providing various forms of aid to populations. Says Shah: “Instead of merely providing food aid in times of emergency, we are helping countries develop their own agricultural sectors so they can feed themselves.” And when it comes to health care, “instead of scattered approaches that fight individual diseases one at a time, we are pursuing an integrated approach that will generate efficiencies and strengthen health systems.”

 

Additional institutional improvements enacted recently include an attempt at procurement reform, the creation of a policy planning and learning bureau, and the reestablishment of USAID’s budget office.

 

Shah went on to announce USAID’s new evaluation policy, the big takeaway from the speech, which hopefully leads to more learning, accountability, and better results in the way U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent. The new policy emerged, Shah notes:

 

“[Because] the results [implementing partners] claim often have little grounding in fact . . . [there often exists] a relationship between implementing partners and evaluators akin to that between investment banks and ratings agencies. Just like investors couldn’t tell the difference between AAA bonds and junk, taxpayers can’t tell the difference between development breakthroughs and subprime development.”

 

So from now on, he says:

 

“Every major project will require a performance evaluation conducted by independent third parties, not by the implementing partners themselves. Instead of simply reporting our results like nearly all aid agencies do, we will collect baseline data and employ study designs that explain what would have happened without our interventions so we can know for sure the impact of our programs.”

 

Shah then committed to releasing the results of all evaluations within three months of their completion, “whether they tell a story of success or failure,” and that the data would be integrated into the foreignassistance.gov dashboard.

 

“I want the American taxpayer to know,” says Shah, “that every dollar they invest in USAID is being invested in the smartest, most efficient and most transparent way possible.”

 

You can find the entire evaluations policy here.

 

In the rest of his speech Shah covered USAID’s plans on attracting more talented employees, attempts at cracking down on fraud, waste and abuse by building a culture of oversight, and in general, his plans for running USAID more like a business that focuses on results, holding people accountable, and getting the most bang for the taxpayer dollar. Key to doing so, he says, is by creating structures and a culture that supports initiative and innovation on the part of the workforce.

 

My thoughts after reading the speech are that USAID seems to be doing a whole lot more to address the organizational challenges associated with running the agency, as opposed to focusing on actual programs overseas. This is a good thing. Addressing both are certainly important, but you can’t really do the latter successfully until you’ve first tailored organizational systems and culture in a manner most conducive to achieving your goals. This is especially important in stabilization situations. Failure to do so has been the subject of much criticism in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Shah’s reforms are more focused on true development (economic growth and capacity building) as opposed to post-conflict stabilization activities, but they none the less make sense since USAID’s primary mission is development and by strengthening weak states we can help prevent them from turning into failed states where conflict erupts. By developing a culture in which people and organizations are held accountable and where evaluations are transparent, USAID will be able to do a better job in the future, regardless of the nature of its involvement.


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