The amount of good our nation has done for poor and hungry people around the world over the last ten years is astounding. We have saved and improved millions of lives through programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was launched by former President George W. Bush to battle the disease in Africa, and the Feed the Future initiative, which President Obama started to support small farmers and the growth of local economies in developing countries.
Behind these big ticket initiatives, our foreign assistance approach has also been transformed into a more rigorously evaluated, strategic and selective one that is focused on helping developing countries and citizens take control of their own future. Completing this transformation must be a foreign policy priority for Obama and his successors because effective and robust development efforts will have to play a larger role in U.S. foreign policy if we are to maintain a strong global presence as our major military engagements end.
Recently, the United States Agency for International Development released the results of an extensive internal evaluation that provided the first evidence that reform is making the machinery of U.S. foreign assistance work better. The USAID Forward Progress Report provides a look at how the agency is implementing the reforms that Obama outlined in his landmark Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD) in 2010. The PPD, the first government-wide development policy reform guidance ever issued from the White House, mapped out the transformation agenda and highlighted a “long-term commitment to rebuilding USAID as the U.S. government’s lead development agency and as the world’s premier development agency.”
In the years since, USAID has focused on reforming key areas:
Evaluation and Selectivity: The creation of both the new USAID Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning and the position of Chief Economist have had clear impact on the agency’s ability to plan and to measure programs and thus make more strategic decisions. The report notes that since 2011, 186 in-depth program evaluations have been completed and published for public review. Furthermore, thanks to a more concerted use of strategic planning, the agency reduced total numbers of program areas by 22 percent and phased out agricultural programs and global health programs in 21 and 17 countries, respectively, where local institutions are in position to take charge.
Country ownership: USAID’s launch of a process to develop Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) – which involve close and cross-sectoral collaboration with recipient countries to set goals and adapt programs – is an important step towards giving partners and citizens more responsibility and accountability within the development process. Twenty CDCS processes were completed in 2012. Efforts to expand country ownership were further strengthened by the agency’s efforts to direct more resources to local institutions. The report notes a 50 percent increase in funding to local organizations since 2010, from 9.7 percent in 2010 to 14.3 percent this year.
Economic Growth and Innovation: The report outlines that strengthening the Development Credit Authority (DCA) has allowed USAID to leverage more private capital – $524 million in 2012 alone – to support entrepreneurship and growth in developing countries. A premium has also been put on new technology: six USAID missions are now actively using and supporting mobile applications to catalyze development.
Partnership: In addition to strengthening relationships with recipient governments, institutions, and citizens, USAID has developed new partnerships with universities and other private sector organizations in order to build local capacity and improve program outcomes.
Transparency: USAID has established a rigorous, multi-step risk assessment mechanism for determining host country governments’ readiness to receive government-to-government assistance from the U.S. If at any point in this process a government fails to meet those eligibility criteria, it is disqualified from further consideration. Similarly, the Obama administration launched the Foreign Assistance Dashboard over two years ago to make information about U.S. assistance more accessible to both American citizens and those of recipient countries, and has committed to publish its assistance data with the International Assistance Transparency Initiative (IATI).
In addition to increased diligence and resolve by the Obama administration and USAID, congressional engagement is needed to solidify these reforms. The president’s budget includes strong reform elements, including a proposal to reshape the inefficient U.S. food aid system to reach more people and save more taxpayer dollars, and we urge Congress to support this and other proposals, like transparency legislation introduced by Rep.Ted Poe (R-Texas).
Completing the transformation of U.S. foreign assistance will reposition the U.S. as not just the most generous, but also the most strategic, innovative, and effective player in global development. We have saved and improved millions of lives over the last ten years and our efforts have helped strengthen our image abroad: a new field survey of aid recipient countries by Oxfam America finds that 83 percent of respondents believe the U.S. is a better development partner now than five years ago. The opportunity at hand for the next ten years is to turn progress into lasting change by helping those people take control of their own lives.