Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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USAID in the 21st Century

by Isobel Coleman
December 8, 2011

I recently hosted Ambassador Don Steinberg, Deputy Administrator of USAID, at an on-the-record CFR meeting to discuss the broad transformation underway at USAID. (You can view above a brief video interview that was filmed after the meeting.) This ambitious reform effort, called USAID Forward, is intended to reposition USAID as an “innovator” in global development, and also to establish a “relentless focus on results.” After years of decline (declining staff, declining expertise, declining reputation), USAID is adding personnel (850 new hires in the past 2 years), bringing experts in-house, gaining clarity around seven core priorities (food security, global health, climate change, sustainable economic growth, democracy promotion, humanitarian assistance, and conflict prevention), and introducing better measurement and evaluation (M&E) systems. Steinberg was optimistic about USAID’s ability to succeed in this transformation, although he spoke candidly about intensifying budget pressures, the imperative of convincing Americans that USAID can be “good stewards,” the rise of new actors in development (US official development assistance last year was roughly $30 billion, but private philanthropies donated some $36 billion to international development), and the ongoing cultural challenges involved in shifting the mission of this large bureaucracy (frankly, it’s hard to push innovation and risk-taking in a structurally risk-averse organization).

The strategic changes at USAID are welcome and in line with the grope toward better results in global development that is under way in many quarters. Last week in Busan, South Korea, the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness wrapped up its 4th meeting. These High Level Forums (HLF) emerged from the realization that ever greater sums spent on aid were not yielding desired outcomes. The major donors, at the time the United States and European nations, largely coalesced behind the idea that increased coordination and accountability (among donors and between donors and recipients) were necessary to changing this. The entry of new players in development, such as Brazil, India, and China, makes agreement on alignment, transparency, and accountability all the more important. Many were surprised that these countries, even though they themselves have large populations of very poor people, signed on to the Busan Outcome Document. Although they are reluctant to call themselves “donors,” they recognize that they have an increasingly important role to play in global poverty alleviation efforts.

USAID’s transformation is taking place against a background of global economic woes, a host of new private and public players, and rising expectations of development. Steinberg emphasized that global development aligns not only with our national economic interests (10 of the top 15 export markets for the U.S. goods today are former developing countries), but also our strategic interests. He noted that not a single fragile state will meet the Millennium Development Goals, and stressed that development assistance is far cheaper than troops on the ground. USAID just marked its 50th anniversary. I doubt it will be out of a job another half century from now, but let’s hope it will be working more effectively with a wide range of public and private partners and with a smaller number of countries in need.

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