Getting Comfortable with the “T-word” at USAID, a Focus on Transitioning Countries

Amidst the general approbation that accompanied Ambassador Mark Green’s arrival at USAID to serve as Administrator, there appears to be one dark cloud on the horizon. Some in the development community are deeply concerned about Administrator Green’s endorsement of “strategic transitions,” in which USAID works its way out of job and, in one form or another, ends U.S. foreign aid to the transitioning country.

In a September 14th interview with Michael Igoe at DEVEX, former Congressman Green stated his “philosophy is that the purpose of all of this is to end the need for [foreign aid’s] existence.” He continued, referencing current recipients of USAID assistance: “So, if and when we get to a phase where there’s a transition in a relationship that should be an extraordinarily good story. That should be a massive celebration.”

“Celebration” is decidedly not how some of my development community colleagues are viewing Mr. Green’s comments.

The concerns about “transition” — or “graduation,” as some formerly described the process – are several. First, there is a quite legitimate concern that the process of ending or reconfiguring U.S. foreign assistance in a given country will be formulaic, driven by some set of quantitative indicators that only roughly capture the nation’s progress. This first concern is exacerbated by the new Administrator’s long-term relationship with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which famously utilizes a set of rather rigid numerical indicators to drive its program decisions.

Then, second, there is the worry that the poorest individuals and communities will be lost in the shuffle. It is most decidedly not inconceivable that the criteria for transitioning a given partner country would focus on GDP growth rates, productivity indicators, overall school attendance rates and other gross measurements that do not reflect the particular circumstances facing marginalized communities and individuals.

Third – okay, entre nous – some are worried that Mr. Green’s celebratory transitions might be used by opponents of foreign aid to achieve the deep cuts that the Trump Administration has already proposed for U.S. development assistance. In this conspiratorial viewpoint, no one doubts Administrator Green’s own good intentions and insights. Rather, the worry is that malevolent forces at the White House or in the anti-foreign aid movement will seize upon the transition concept as a justification for gutting foreign aid.

Without discounting any of these trepidations, I would like to advocate a more positive view. In fact, I believe the international development community should positively embrace the Administrator’s transition ethos; even, dare I say?, “celebrate” it.

Why? First, because continuing public support for a dynamic U.S. foreign aid program, especially during fiscally austere times, requires a compelling narrative. And there is no more compelling narrative – no more uniquely American narrative of progress – than the tale of picking oneself up “by the bootstraps” and achieving success. That, I would argue, is what Administrator Green — former elected U.S. Representative who has his finger on the pulse of the American public – and his transition narrative are providing.

On a separate analytical plane, we in the development community have been striving mightily to deliver a compelling argument for a robust U.S. foreign aid program to a sometimes disbelieving, more often mis-comprehending, U.S. public. What they want to know about is whether their tax dollars are actually achieving success, and a transition metric for countries that no longer require U.S. foreign aid tells that success story like no other approach. The quintessential example of this narrative could be South Korea, and its sojourn from foreign aid recipient several decades ago to foreign aid donor (213 projects in 54 countries; over a half billion dollars in aid) today.

Second, the new Administrator seems to understand fully that the core criterion for transitioning a country away from traditional foreign aid is really about that nation’s sustainable capacity – a word he used six times in his September DEVEX interview. Rather than cheerleading a cookie-cutter quantification approach, his words thus far seem to suggest a sophisticated, nuanced understanding that getting the metrics right on national capacity in developing countries will be the key to modifying the foreign aid relationship. Indeed, forcing thought leaders both inside and outside of USAID to grapple with transition metrics could make a real contribution to USAID’s long struggle to define “top-line” indicators.

In short, I get the apprehension that many in the development community are feeling. And, clearly, Administrator Green will have to move thoughtfully in shaping USAID’s transition strategy. In addition to ensuring that transitions are developmentally sound, he will face questions about what form the post-transition will take, and what mechanisms will be available for returning to a transitioned country where advancements turn out to be unsustainable. From colleagues in the State and Defense realms, he will face tough questions about the implications of foreign aid transition for geo-strategic competition, and for the relevance of the U.S. Ambassador.

But, personally, I think Mark Green is on to something. I encourage the international development community to give his ideas a balanced look, and to dive in to make “strategic transitions” as developmentally effective as possible.

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This is a guest post from James Kunder, former Acting Deputy Administrator of USAID, MFAN Executive Committee Member, and affiliated expert with The Lugar Center. This piece was originally featured on The Lugar Center’s blog.

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