Commentary: 50 Years -- A Great Start But Still a Long Way to Go

On November 3rd, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was a somewhat quiet celebration, and too few Americans were given a chance to learn about the tens of millions of lives saved.
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On November 3rd, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was a somewhat quiet celebration, and too few Americans were given a chance to learn about the tens of millions of lives saved as a result of USAID programs that have come "from the American people" - whether immunizations, oral rehydration therapy, safe drinking water, the Green Revolution, microfinance, family planning and maternal/child health services, the empowerment of citizens, or countless other investments.

Nonetheless, for someone like me who worked for USAID for more than half of both of our lives, it was an opportunity to reflect. Some of that reflection emerged from a short video on USAID's website: It was a perfect statement! There were photos of hope, pride, aspiration and even disappointment. There was the voice of President John F. Kennedy, speaking so eloquently about the "...great start on our journey..." and reminding us that "...we have a long way to go." He cautioned that we should "...expect moments of frustration and disappointment." And, yes, there have been both. But, he also made clear that "our problems are manmade and can be solved by man."

These manmade problems are multiple. Some relate to the traditional challenges of reducing poverty and building sustainable solutions. Some also relate to how we do development assistance. Certainly, President Kennedy's words resonated with me as I moved on from USAID's inspirational video and from my personal celebration of USAID's anniversary to read some harder edged reporting on the state of U.S. foreign assistance - and the manmade problems that it faces.

First was the blog by Nandini Oomman on the Center for Global Development (CGD) website in which she asked whether USAID is being set up to fail on the Global Health Initiative (GHI). Given the difficulties the Administration has faced integrating global health investments under the GHI, the answer to that question is probably "yes."

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) suggested that leadership of the GHI would shift to USAID in a year. But, it would be phantom leadership if USAID is not also given the ability to steer the Initiative through its budgetary, policy and legal challenges - including those pertaining to PEPFAR, the huge and politically popular HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment program that comprises 70 percent of GHI funding. This issue must be addressed. It is a "manmade" problem and can "be solved by man," if there is political will and courage.

Second, I belatedly read the Quality of Official Development Assistance Assessment (QODA) issued by CGD in early October. The QODA examined four dimensions of aid effectiveness: maximizing efficiency; fostering institutions; reducing burden; and transparency and learning. It was not a pretty picture. While we know that many U.S. programs are achieving important results, the U.S. scored worse than average for bilateral donors against the 30 indicators in the report. Why? Again, many of the problems are manmade and arise because of the multiplicity of U.S. agencies and the legislative and administrative barriers. We as a country can do better.

USAID, as an agency, can also do better if it is given the resources it needs, including sufficient operating expenses to hire and retain first-rate staff. But, USAID also needs legislative support to enable it to become a better development partner in the countries where it works. There are too many restrictions, many of which were put in place in the name of accountability. If U.S. assistance is to be more effective and if results are to be sustainable, steps must be taken to facilitate, not limit, direct programming with host country institutions. This must include governments and non-governmental partners, even when it means the co-mingling of funds. It also means fewer mega contracts and greater use of smaller programs that can be more targeted and experimental. USAID Forward has been designed to deal with many of these constraints, but even more is needed.

As President Kennedy indicated, all of these "manmade problems...can be solved by man." We simply need to work harder to solve them - and we need to work more collaboratively to do so, whether across political party lines or between government and civil society. Or, if those proverbial "men" can't do it, I know a lot of women who are ready to take on the challenge!

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