As the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) celebrates its 50th anniversary this Thursday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a panel last week featuring a host of USAID administrators discussing past achievements, present challenges, and future hopes for U.S. foreign assistance. The panel included Peter McPherson, USAID administrator from 1981-1987; Brian Atwood (by video), administrator, 1993-1999; Andrew Natsios, 2001-2006; Henrietta Fore, 2007-2009; and Rajiv Shah, current administrator.
Shah focused on the importance of health, highlighting the success of sustained programs under previous administrators. Shah commented that “Health is a good example of where we are doing as much as we can to build upon our past successes”. Programs including oral rehydration therapy, the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and International Planned Parenthood programs have saved millions of lives because of key innovation, persistence in implementation, and continuity through changing administrations.
Going forward, Shah hopes to improve synergies between partner-country governments and USAID programs. Key to this synergy is tracking, reporting, and promulgating innovative ideas and technology, reforming procurement practices, improving interagency coordination, and continue promoting public-private partnerships to facilitate development. The current administrator declared inclusive leadership, effective impact evaluation and transparency, and greater innovation will pave a successful path to more effective U.S. foreign assistance in a “diverse and decentralized development environment.”
McPherson commended the efforts of the succeeding administrators, commenting that “we build on who came before us.” In this spirit, he stressed the continuation of bipartisan support, claiming “it is important to keep it that way” because “a hungry child has no politics.”
McPherson discussed issues of food security, drawing attention to the current World Bank report that food production must increase 70% to feed the projected 9+ billion world population by 2050. The Feed the Future initiative under President Obama and Administrator Shah shows promising steps, McPherson said, toward re-vamping USAID’s focus on agricultural development and food security. Sustaining and strengthening this approach would provide necessary global leadership in solving the impending challenges of hunger and food production.
Atwood appeared on a video commenting on the “challenges of fragmentation” and the need to coordinate interagency efforts and centralize spending authority to ensure the quality of development efforts.
Natsios, in recognition of the importance continuity of development programs, called for greater patience, saying that expectations for development must not demand immediate results. The products of sustained approaches, as evident by past administrators, and the nature of development’s “lag effect,” have meaningful impacts that are not measurable until years later.
Natsios argued that challenges to these sustained efforts include burdensome oversight. Natsios points out there are ten committees that oversee various aspects of USAID efforts, from which contradictory mandates may be given, confusing the planning and development process. Critical in moving forward is determining the “cost of oversight,” and through a proposal for no intrusion, no required reporting other than appropriation, and no regulation for five charter programs for five years – which is similar to an MFAN recommendation in From Policy to Practice — Natsios believes such an effort will provide substantive evidence needed to support peeling back regulatory layers.
Fore spoke on the importance of engaging the private sector through the Public-Private Partnerships initiative, saying that USAID should be “allowed to put the private sector to work in supply chains.” This greater engagement recognizes both the “private sector [as a] natural partner for all government programs” and the prospect of opportune private-sector investment in developing countries.
In addition to private-sector engagement, Fore emphasized the need for USAID to “focus on moving the center of gravity our programs to countries” and use partner country ideas and initiatives. Fore argued for the continued support of the Development Leadership Initiative started under President Bush, saying that additional Foreign Service officers and workers are critical to bringing project planning to the field. The challenges of budget austerity are threatening USAID’s Operating Budget, which would stymie much of the progress made through the DLI to rebuild the Agency.