As we begin 2018, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are reportedly putting the finishing touches on their proposals for a major “redesign” of our foreign affairs institutions. Hopefully, the reorganization will equip State and USAID to respond to the seismic shifts agitating the international landscape, trends that simultaneously create opportunities and pose new threats to U.S. interests. The business of international relations—particularly the development work carried out by USAID—takes place at the country level. To be effective, any effort to redesign our aid and diplomacy institutions must incorporate the experience and practical know-how of our diplomats and development professionals stationed abroad. In his recent piece Let USAID Run USAID, Dan Runde captured the importance of why the USAID Administrator must be fully empowered and accountable for executing foreign assistance. As two former Senior Foreign Service officers with over 40 years of service overseas between us, we believe it is critical to take these arguments a step further with five key tests that must be met for the redesign to succeed in the field.
First, reforms need to ensure there is one development leadership voice at the country level. The Ambassador is the Chief of Mission and he or she deserves objective analysis and clear policy and program options that advance U.S. interests and achieve development results. Ensuring that the Ambassador’s country team—the heads of all U.S. departments and agencies at post—speak with one development voice is essential to achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives. Development and diplomacy are related but distinct professions, and at the country level, roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships must be clear for our work to be effective and accountable. This is often not the case today. Our diplomats and development workers are frequently caught up in counter-productive, soul-crushing bureaucratic turf and budget battles driven by competing or downright contradictory instructions from their Washington headquarters.. Creating a structure that requires active collaboration around priority setting will allow Embassies to focus on achieving a coherent set of objectives without having to navigate a labyrinth to get decisions made and actions approved. Even in the best managed Embassies, ones with strong Ambassadors where both of us were fortunate to serve, it was not uncommon to spend countless hours untangling roles and responsibilities. The redesign can fix this by empowering the USAID Mission Director as the Development Counselor to the Ambassador with a mandate, supported by clear lines of authority and accountability, to coordinate the Post’s development work.
Second, reforms must be practical. No matter how desirable or politically popular, if the reforms don’t support the reality of what it takes to achieve results on the ground, not only will they fail, but they will be resisted by field staff who, more than anything else, are focused on delivering results. Over the course of our decades of work, we saw this again and again in both Republican and Democratic administrations. What may seem like a brilliant idea in Washington, often just won’t work in the field and countless hours are spent trying to fit a square peg in a round hole because of ill-informed guidance from headquarters. The nine recommendations offered in the Redesign Consensus report are attractive, in part, because they are doable. They don’t require new legislation or heroic bureaucratic reorganizations. They are consistent with the lessons learned over many decades and backed by what the evidence has shown improves organizational performance and development effectiveness. Keeping it simple and staying within the guardrails of what our foreign affairs agencies can do within current authorities and budgets only requires one critical ingredient: leadership. And effective leadership for international development requires the Secretary of State and the USAID Administrator to be on the same side of the coin in empowering their Ambassadors and USAID Mission Directors.
Third, it’s OK for a reform to be disruptive if the disruption leads to better use of resources, encourages innovation, and advances the mission of diplomacy and development. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to international development, we know development is all about change and it requires us to be innovative, scrappy, and resilient. Development professionals are often referred to as change agents. They are professional disruptors.
Fourth, reforms need to improve our ability to achieve results. One area in particular that field staff would welcome and would leverage greater impact is procurement reform. We need systems designed to make our assistance programs more agile and responsive to today’s challenges. Our diplomats and development professionals are focused on getting the highest return on each development dollar. They are acutely aware that there are no silver bullets and that one size does not fit all. The evidence on complex social programs shows that every program must be customized to the conditions on the ground, must gain buy-in from local stakeholders, and ultimately, must be responsive to fluid conditions and sustained by our development partners. While we both witnessed progress in modernizing our procurement systems to place a greater emphasis on strengthening local systems, much remains to be done.
The good news is we already have the acquisition and assistance tools to support more agile programs. We don’t need new laws or regulations. We do need contracting and technical officers who know how to creatively apply the wide range of instruments that already exist—from Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs), to Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQs), to other innovative financing approaches such as paying for results with fixed price contracts.
Targeted training that emphasizes how to use existing instruments to support adaptive program design and shifts the focus from risk-averse compliance provisions to program outcomes would be a game changer. This could be reinforced by standing up a Community of Practice to share and replicate successful models and approaches. Together, these relatively simple, straight-forward measures would go a long way towards institutionalizing the business know-how, mental mindset, and tools needed to ensure our procurement practices support 21st century program demands.
Fifth, support our development professionals. The final point is about the people working overseas to carry out the foreign policy highlighted in the recently released National Security Strategy of “pursuing opportunities to promote security and prosperity.” They come from all over America to serve in often hazardous conditions, including countries where both of us served with active civil wars, kidnappings, and complex crises. Some of our colleagues such as Anne Smedinghoff, Antoinette Tomasek, and John Granville paid the ultimate sacrifice and each May during Foreign Affairs month we honor our fallen colleagues whose names are etched into memorial walls at the Department of State and USAID. Each of these patriots died serving their country as diplomats and development professionals. The true test of the value of the redesign will be whether it takes into account what the dedicated men and women serving our country overseas need to succeed.
Susan Reichle is the President and Chief Operating Officer of the International Youth Foundation and a former career USAID senior foreign service officer and Counselor to the Agency at USAID.
Patrick Fine is the Chief Executive Officer of FHI360 and former Vice President for Compact Operations at the MCC. Prior to MCC, Mr. Fine served as a USAID career senior foreign service officer.