The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the health and health systems of countries around the world and taken a serious toll on economies and societies. The World Bank estimates that an additional 100 million people have been pushed into poverty due to the economic impact of the pandemic. 130 million people in three dozen countries including Syria and Yemen are on the brink of starvation, and according to the United Nations 200 million children globally – disproportionately girls – continue to remain out of school. (This number is above the already 258 million who were not in school before the pandemic.) The needs are massive. So how can the U.S. government be as effective as possible at this critical moment?
One of President Biden’s first actions was to sign National Security Memorandum – 1, a comprehensive document committing the U.S. government to helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic globally, assisting countries recover from its devastating impacts, and working to prepare for future health crises. Together with Congress, the Administration is preparing to act on these national security priorities. While resources will be critical, we write to share key recommendations and lessons learned that we believe can strengthen the impact of U.S. policies and funding, enabling people both at home and abroad to recover and re-build.
Last spring as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) prepared for a global COVID-19 response, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) released recommendations for an effective pandemic response. These included establishing clear lines of authority and communication among the response team; making evidence-based investments; increasing flexibility of funding; coordinating with local governments and civil society; and measuring success wisely.
As part of this effort, MFAN followed up with diverse USAID missions throughout the fall of 2020 to hear how U.S. funding for the COVID-19 response was working in the field – if these recommended practices were being put in place and how successful the efforts were. While the experiences on the ground varied widely regarding the severity of the pandemic and its impact on development, some common themes emerged on the usefulness of flexible funding, the critical importance of local partners, and the significance of good governance as a prerequisite for effective aid.
The regular process of U.S. foreign assistance getting to the countries where it is needed can be slow and bureaucratic. Not only does money move slowly through the process, often taking years to reach its intended beneficiaries, but also foreign aid dollars are strictly directed via a complex system that restricts funds by both country and program type. To respond to a new virus that halted normal life around the world in a matter of weeks, this rigid structure proved incompatible with a nimble response. Two specific changes allowed missions to fund agile and responsive programs quickly.
First, COVID-19-specific supplemental funds from Congress were not provided in the same, strict way that typical development funds are; instead Congress allocated the funding to specific accounts including global health and humanitarian response, but permitted USAID to transfer the funds among and between accounts subject to notification to Congress, ensuring accountability and transparency. That meant that USAID could use this money in a way that directly reflected the situation on the ground. This is not typically the case. In the yearly funding process, Congress may insist, for example, that funds be used for nutrition programs in Ethiopia, when experts on the ground might see a greater need for democracy programs instead. The emergency funding act did not carry such restrictions, allowing missions to respond nimbly and quickly to target the assistance to the most vulnerable groups or to the most dire needs of the moment – from PPE production to distance education programs, depending on the community’s needs and priorities. Congress should evaluate the effectiveness of this funding flexibility it provided to address the COVID-19 pandemic and consider opportunities to employ it going forward for increased impact.
Second, then-USAID Administrator Mark Green signed an Expedited Procedure Package (EPP), which authorized the use of other than full-and-open competition for contracts in regard to pandemic response. This allowed USAID missions to act swiftly in setting up or modifying programs. One mission modified their contract with a health organization which was conducting tuberculosis programming to pivot to COVID-19 response in only a matter of days, whereas such an adjustment would normally have taken months. Others were able to take advantage of recently reformed contracting rules that support co-creation of programming to develop new programs as the situation necessitated and begin to carry them out. While full-and-open competition should not be abolished for USAID contracts across the board, there are other procurement reforms that USAID could take on that would yield similar efficiency gains.
Among the most consequential of those initiatives is the Agency’s first-ever Acquisition and Assistance (A&A) Strategy which guides the use of about 80% of USAID’s funding, roughly $17 billion annually. Following its launch in 2019, the A&A Strategy has shown some promising results, but since procurement cycles are several years long, these reforms will need more time to take root. USAID leadership should give high priority to the continued implementation of the A&A Strategy. Doing so will respond effectively to four critical procurement weaknesses identified through the USAID’s A&A Listening Tour.
In addition to flexible funding and procurement reform, missions also highlighted the importance of working directly with local partners during the pandemic. With transportation routes closed and supply chains disrupted, U.S. assistance needed to be leveraged to help communities protect their own health and economies. In several instances, local partners assisted host country governments and communities in continuing to educate students when schools closed by developing reading and other programs that were locally tailored and could be broadcast over the radio. In other places, missions were able to quickly disseminate COVID-19 messaging at the community level through existing local partnerships.
USAID is making important progress in terms of local partnerships, but more can be done to ensure that these strong relationships and local knowledge and expertise can be leveraged not only during the pandemic, but during any challenge a country might face. USAID can continue to simplify the partnership requirements for local organizations, as well as strengthen local partners’ capacity in several areas, such as in data collection. Many missions cited a lack of reliable data in-country even before the pandemic began. Providing capacity support to develop this capability locally enables both the accurate assessment of a community’s needs and the accountability and reliability of data for appropriate decision-making.
The ability of the U.S. to engage with a partner country on its plan to contain the pandemic and protect its peoples’ health and economic well-being rests largely on matters of governance – whether the partner government is dedicated to citizen participation and governs transparently, or it is infused with corruption and lacks the commitment and capacity to work with all partners to protect its citizens. The situation in each country is unique and necessitates the implementation of the recently approved Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) which focus on the development challenges, including governance, facing each country in a pre-COVID-19 world. In most situations these challenges will persist in a post-COVID-19 environment, and the CDCS plans should remain an important guide.
We spoke to a wide variety of missions – those in countries that had largely contained the virus and those where the partner government was virtually ignoring the pandemic or had vastly more dire development and humanitarian considerations at hand. Despite dramatically different situations, almost across the board there was an appreciation for flexible funding to allow for nimble and responsive programming, an appreciation for the critical role of local partners, and a recognition of the role of governance in aid effectiveness. While the pandemic and its effects will hopefully subside soon, other development challenges across the globe will continue to arise. Enabling and advancing these components of aid effectiveness will allow the U.S. and our partner countries to respond most effectively for the greatest possible impact.