Strengthening U.S. Civilian Actions for International Development

Today the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition issued its second Report on Reports, Smart Power Agenda for Advancing America’s Global Interests.  This new report updates a previous paper from 2009, Putting ‘Smart Power’ to Work, which synthesized areas of agreement in the recommendations from 20 different reports. It aimed to provide the incoming Obama administration with a guide to the best thinking on how the U.S. government could improve its international operations.  In the last several years, however, there has been a further flood of such studies, and this new synthesis, in addition to summarizing areas of agreement looking forward, also provides references and updates to some of the key administration and congressional initiatives of the last four years.

The new report identifies six areas in which there is consensus among many of the reviewed documents. There is no need to repeat what the report presents, but I will add a few specific suggestions on four areas of agreement.

In the category of strengthening civilian power, it is encouraging to see the broad agreement on the critical need to maintain and expand the progress that has been made in restaffing USAID and the Department of State. But to go further, little progress has been made by either agency in replicating their defense colleagues’ model of an adequately planned and resourced career-long professional development program for all Foreign Service officers. The Foreign Service seeks to attract the best and the brightest and then does little to maintain and advance the skills and knowledge they bring to the job. Even broader, USAID’s personnel system is an antiquated hodge-podge of workarounds. The system needs an overhaul, commencing with cooperation with Congress to write a new human resource statutory mandate that encompasses the requirements of a 21st century international affairs agenda and modern family life. One aspect can be adapted from USAID’s Europe and Eurasia Bureau which, from its founding, has had the authority to partner its career staff – which has broad knowledge of development and how to work in difficult environments – with short/medium term outside hires with the skills and experience to address highly technical issues.

In the area of results-driven development, the White House took a noteworthy step in the May 9 executive order to all executive departments that raises open and transparent data to a mandated government wide policy. The directive calls for all government agencies to make their data publicly available in accessible, machine readable form. This memo serves as a significant impetus to the U.S. fulfilling its commitment to the International Assistance Transparency Initiative (IATI) and to having all agencies posting their data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. Another point is that the community needs to acknowledge, commend and protect the Millennium Challenge Corporation for staying true to one of its founding principles – to undertake independent, rigorous evaluation of its projects – as the first evaluations (five agricultural projects) were made public, with both the good and not so good results included, that reveal useful lessons of what does and does not work. Similarly, USAID is to be commended and encouraged to continue the practice established by the posting of 187 high quality evaluations since 2011.

The rising acknowledgement of the key role the private sector plays in development should be expanded beyond the narrow opportunities for leveraging assistance funds to also looking at the broader impact on development, both positive and negative, of corporate business practices, as modeled in the Oxfam initiative “Behind the Brand”.

On the matter of foreign assistance resources, Congress needs to heed the broad array of voices arguing that reducing funds for the international affairs budget, which has been cut 20 percent since 2010, is short-changing our national security and economic prosperity as well as the important national value of helping those suffering from natural and manmade crises.  It further runs the risk of the significantly higher costs associated with country and regional instability and economic and human crises.

The synthesis in the second Report on Reports is intended as a service to busy policymakers to help them identify areas of policy action that garners broad support and thereby help them sort through the many competing priorities. The 20 minute read is well worth the time.