IDEA invites you, the international development practitioner, to participate in our upcoming, leading edge working session. This Washington-based training program, An Enquiry into International Development, encourages an in-depth view of how international development is carried out and how it might be shifted to create greater outcomes. This course will enable you to guide your your development organization, NGO, consulting company or business to set up, plan, and create more effective operations and outcomes. If you are out to make a major difference in our field or gain traction in your international development career, this Working Session is for you. The program will provide you with:
- Actionable insights into points in the development process that you can influence more profoundly creating real, extraordinary outcomes from your efforts
- Tools for enhancing your performance and effectiveness
- An accessible model for a new paradigms in international development.
The next working session will take place TBD, at 3240 O Street, NW, Washington D.C. (conference room of St. John’s Episcopal Church). Follow-up coaching and mentoring groups are also available to support participants to achieve the outcomes they define in this program. YOU MUST BE PRE-REGISTERED TO ATTEND THIS WORKING SESSION. TO PRE-REGISTER SEND AN EMAIL TO RIVEY@DEVIDEA.ORG OR CALL (202) 320.7759.
Companies and organizations represented at recent working sessions include:
ACDI-VOCA CARANA Corporation
Cardno Emerging Markets Checchi and Company Consulting
Chemonics International Glevum Associates
Fintrac Kaizen Consulting
Making Cents International Segura Associates
Weidemann International Environmental Protection Agency
The Mitchell Group AZMJ
On the surface, the reforms undertaken by Administrator Shah appear to be positive. His approach is: Give the funds to local groups and consultants who can provide assistance to local communities that will use that assistance and learn to live better lives. For large U.S. organizations, contractors and NGOs, the issue is about losing a portion of their current business and changing some of the routine of how business is procured. For small U.S. organizations, contractors and NGOs, the effect has been negative for their business. While these impacts are appreciated, this approach may also fall short at several additional important points; in some cases, these factors may be missing from foreign assistance programs for the last couple of decades, perhaps from its beginning.
If development programs during that period and under Shah’s management had been focused on effectiveness, there would be no question about how to manage the U.S. foreign assistance program today. And there would be no uncertainty surrounding Congressional funding support. The programs would be working successfully; local leaders in many locations would have long ago taken over development efforts on behalf of their communities; and the U.S. would have generated so many friends worldwide that the positive feedback would be evidence of one of history’s great success stories.
The challenges that face development settings probably cannot be overcome, however, unless additional management and systemic shifts are made, no matter whether the implementing organization is a contractor or a non-profit, and no matter whether the contractor is U.S.-based or in a developing country. What seems to be left out over many years is that international development’s achievement of effectiveness can stem from: how projects are designed; how they generate buy-in from local communities; whether they are executed in a way to create the local community control of the activities they perceive as valuable; and how well lessons (positive and negative) are captured and integrated into future efforts. Whether projects are undertaken by U.S. contractors and NGOs or local country contractors and NGOs, we must observe, with some small exceptions, that many projects financed by the U.S. Government have political overtones and motivations (a country’s pay-back for cooperating with the U.S. government in some strategic way or by sending troops, for example, to face al-Qaeda influenced forces). Its projects are often designed in a top-down, rather than a bottom-up way; they face USAID demands to spend the money to justify further financing; the timetables are almost always too short (effective development takes time); they lack adequate attention to achieving local buy-in and trust by participating communities; projects often leave women, youth and disadvantaged groups by the wayside, although this is positively changing; they most often do not empower local leaders who can inspire their own communities to take actions; they avoid the political change process; and the whole project monitoring and evaluation process has oftentimes been done with the purpose of justifying USAID’s and the implementing contractor or NGO’s activities, rather than learning where the project has fallen short and what has been successful.
If these operational norms go unchanged, USAID’s results will continue to be the same: inconsistently effective. The use of local contractors and NGOs and greater reliance on the country’s government personnel by themselves will not create effective projects. Actually, this new shift may merely be a less expensive way of doing “business as usual”. One of the biggest problems not dealt with in most development efforts is that almost invariably the cultural context must change in some ways and often those least able to distinguish the cultural shifts necessary may be local consultants. And they may be too deferential to the political power structure in which they’re working. Second, while the local consultants may know well how to get along in their environment, they actually may not be broadly experienced or innovative. In fact, USAID runs the risk, in some cases, of non-performance. Third, the motivation for the local organization or consultant may not include “working oneself out of a job” just as U.S. consultants are often accused. Anyone familiar with international development knows that recruiting local personnel involves identifying and interviewing persons who are intent, in an almost Pavlovian way, on obtaining their next contract with a development project without any knowledge or inclination about the broader and important issues involving effectiveness. Those engaged in recruiting local personnel have found this entire process to be quite a challenge. Sometimes these consultants are still negotiating the salary they received on their last job. Under Administrator Shah’s initiatives there may be created a larger pool of local consultants available for development projects, but who, in reality, have no obvious motivation to be too successful.
While it is imperfect now, one of the biggest problems posed by the FORWARD Initiative for U.S. international relations is that there will be little evidence other than the sign on the project office with USAID branding, of the U.S. Government and its citizens expressing their generosity and desire for friendship with persons in a particular country. The Peace Corps, probably the most cost effective development program that the U.S. Government fields overseas, makes, in the majority of cases, the undeniable contribution of developing friends and trust for America. The Peace Corps involves volunteers in direct conversations with locals about the changes local communities desire. Neither the way USAID operates now nor the way it is proposing to operate through local consultants and organizations achieves this for the most part – but it should because we need that kind of interaction and friendship building out there in the world.
Without question the issue of corruption will become more intense. USAID’s contribution over the years is that it has administrated programs without much leakage or corruption. However, corruption is a part of the culture in many developing societies and it can be foreseen that with more local consultants and local USAID officials in charge of programs, the greater will be these kinds of administrative challenges.
One final note on USAID effectiveness: Andrew Natsios, when he was the USAID Administrator, made the contribution of bringing development into a triumvirate with diplomacy and defense, the “three D’s”. That perhaps saved the Agency in the post-9/11 period and gave it a new essential purpose. There is a major problem with this, however. As a result of this “triumvirate thinking” USAID has channeled huge amounts of funds to Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled spots. The problem is that real investments, in money, time and spirit, that would convert into long-term, sustainable changes are never undertaken by local entrepreneurs (the ones who count) when the risks are too high. Entrepreneurs and normal citizens will not risk their personal wealth when the chances are that it will be lost in a suicide bomb blast or a Taliban take-over. Nevertheless, a huge amount of funds has been channeled to countries where success could not realistically be expected. If USAID wants to make a contribution, it should focus on running effective programs in countries where they have a chance of buy-in and investment by the participants. Lots of goodwill can be built up and lots of social tension can be headed off early. The Department of Defense is now charged with carrying out development programs in conflict zones. Let’s leave them to that kind of “nation building.”
To summarize, USAID is not headed down a road where they are going to achieve what Congress, the American people and the impoverished in developing countries want: effective programs. They want high M&E numbers, but USAID programs often lack the focus and tools to achieve authentic higher numbers. To get on the right track, USAID needs to work on greater effectiveness, local consultants should subsequently be trained to undertake to roll out effective programs, and then we will have the outcomes for which we have all been working. In this transition, which will take time, USAID should not overlook the vast technical capabilities in U.S.-based contractors and NGOs that can be brought to bear to assist in the transformation and where highly technical skill development and training is required. This includes small U.S. contractors, who are currently suffering the devastating results of this policy.