How do new Aid Initiatives pan out on the ground? A study of 4 new USAID approaches

April 22, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Depressed by the zombification of Britain’s official aid system, I am looking further afield for inspiration/new thinking and came across this recent paper on a series of innovations at USAID. Larry Garber, Gretchen King and Karen Hirschfeld looked at 4 initiatives: co-creation; engaging new and non-traditional actors via the New Partnerships Initiative (NPI); convening power; and integrated programming (apologies for the aidspeak – all are explained in the text). They looked at how the new approaches were written, understood and implemented (though not, as far as I can see, experienced by local organizations or populations, which seems like a pretty serious gap).

What emerges is a serious bout of initativ-itis. USAID staff are constantly subjected to a blizzard of new concepts, language and toolkits. Taken individually, each new approach may well be an improvement on business as usual, but what about when there are loads of them? Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always end well. Italics are my commentary; the rest is from the report.

On the plus side, the team identified some ‘enabling factors’ across all approaches:

‘These include interest and flexibility by technical and support teams, and resources to recruit and train Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) that understand the local context, culture, and languages. Additionally, the study found that the socio-political context in the host country also plays a major role in a mission’s ability or interest in using one or many of the approaches. An enabling environment for the use of integrated programming depends heavily on existing structures and needs in a specific region. For example, NPI efforts to work with local non-traditional partners can be enabled by strong capacity and a thriving local nongovernmental (NGO) ecosystem.

[shorthand version: local staff know more than fly-in, fly-out expats; context matters – who’da thunk it?]

The team also identified several barriers to using the approaches in the field. These include the proliferation of approaches and the policy/ guidance that accompanies them, which challenge field staff to determine what is a priority and what is not. The field also struggles with the use of “one-size-fits-all” (or in this case, four sizes fit all, I guess) guidance that suggests an approach will work similarly in nearly all contexts when the reality is that the efficacy of a particular approach is quite context-specific. The Agency’s low appetite for certain risks often disincentivizes staff to use co-creation, integrated programming, and NPI. Finally, because the four approaches are intended to strengthen sustainable development, they require increased work, collaboration, and influence within the host country; however, these essentials are often hindered by a lack of local language fluency among Foreign Service Officers (FSO) and the overly technical, acronym-heavy way of speaking that is prevalent in the development and humanitarian communities.

[white men in shorts/expats in general are rubbish at this kind of thing]

In sum, the research highlighted the dissonance between USAID’s commitment to being a policy-driven agency and the day-to-day realities faced by Mission staff who must understand, internalize, and apply multiple Washington headquarters-formulated approaches to circumstances of the countries in which they are operating. Even where field staff appreciate the conceptual wisdom underlying the four approaches for promoting Agency development goals, their effective use is often stymied by funding limitations, pressures to obligate funds quickly, staff capacity to address multiple demands, an emphasis on achieving rapid results, competing priorities, and concerns about risk. That said, and without minimizing the articulated frustrations, field staff expressed enthusiasm for the approaches in general as a way to potentially achieve sustainable development results.’

[pity the poor aid worker, bombarded with a never-ending alphabet soup of new initiatives from head office, but without the time to absorb/adapt any of them to local context]

The team then came up with 12 recommendations for USAID HQ, which all seem eminently sensible:

  1. Ensure that all newly-developed approaches, along with other policy guidance, are rationalized with existing policies, guidance, and other approaches before dissemination;
  2. Undertake cost-benefit assessment before deploying approach;
  3. Maximize field staff flexibility in determining utilization of a particular approach;
  4. Provide tools for field staff to use in determining the priority of a specific approach given their particular circumstances;
  5. Initiate periodic reviews of approach implementation and contributions toward Agency development objectives;
  6. Increase the role that FSNs play in the context of implementing each of the approaches;
  7. Ensure solicitations, policies, and other guidance documents are translated into local languages;
  8. Improve capture and dissemination of knowledge regarding approach implementation success stories;
  9. Simplify and minimize burdens associated with implementing and reporting on approaches, while also crediting successes that go beyond specific technical sectors;
  10. Refine tools for capacitating local actors to collaborate meaningfully with USAID;
  11. Prepare case studies that expand on the descriptions of organizational structures that have been used to implement integrated programming; and
  12. Develop a “module” on convening power for USAID training programs.

Zooming in even further, I emailed Garber about the paper, and he replied

‘the one point that is particularly resonant today at USAID and I assume at other agencies is how the current emphasis on localization can best be internalized and applied by development agencies given that field staff a) are being told to prioritize multiple substantive agendas (e.g., climate, anti-corruption, COVID-recovery) and b) are being encouraged to cast a broad net in seeking out local actors ranging from host country governments to the full panoply of civil society actors.  The question that we hoped USAID and others would consider is how best to disseminate guidance in a manner that would be useful to the field.’

On one level, this is all pretty depressing – it feels like we are endlessly relearning the same lessons, without a lot of forward motion. Garber quoted the old French saying ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’ in his email. On the other hand, it’s great to see someone researching how these initiatives are experienced on the ground, the report has been published despite being critical, and, if you’re British, this is a nostalgic return to the days when government agencies were interested in learning anything at all…..

April 22, 2022
Duncan Green