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Continuity in Development Policy, but Implementation is Key September 23, 2010

Posted by Laura A. Hall in Analysis.
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by Laura A. Hall

Photo courtesy of CNN.com

Listening to President Obama’s speech at the UN and reading the new U.S. Global Development Policy, one cannot help but notice how similar the themes sounded to those of his predecessor.  This suggests we may have entered an era when there is little political difference in how the parties approach development and when effectiveness and sustainability will trump faddish approaches [1].  The real issues coming from this week’s announcements will be in the implementation and management, where the bureaucratic weeds can entangle any policy.

Baby Not Thrown Out With Bathwater: Overall Continuity in Approach

The new policy, despite assertions, is hardly the first of its kind, as the Bush team had a clear set of goals and strategies that it followed.  The Bush development strategy treated development as a major national security imperative that reflected American values in order to put resources behind it.

The Bush Administration, for all of the critique it received from progressive and liberal voices, did earn a lot of credit for its international development assistance. Bush’s approach focused on good governance, private sector led growth, and host country leadership.  Among its specific efforts, the Bush Administration:

  • Doubled, then doubled again, official development assistance;
  • Instituted new, major programs targeting specific diseases with massive resources and an intention to address underlying governance and systemic deficiencies in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions;
  • Instituted a new program that relied on developing country leadership and rewarded good governance;

All of these approaches appear in the Obama administration policy.  This is welcome in terms of consistency and continuity. It is also important because the focus on aid effectiveness, local ownership, linkages between governance and investment climate, and on the role of the private sector and trade can harness the interests of the private sector and private voluntary donors and combine them with the unique role played by the government.

It’s All Fun and Games Until Somebody Gets Hurt: Making Tough Decisions

In recognition of the U.S. fiscal situation and the lack of focus in development, the new policy identifies ways to target assistance.  It has become a truism that there is too little clarity in goals and money is spread too thin.  The policy asserts that the new approach will make tough decisions on where and in what sectors the United States will invest.  The policy calls out other existing strategies already released on food security, climate change, and global health, suggesting that focus areas have already been identified.  The key implementation issue is: who is empowered to make choices and tradeoffs and how clear is their guidance to do so?

One hint is the discussion of impact assessments and monitoring effectiveness as a way to determine where to invest.  Metrics and causality are notoriously difficult and the reasons assistance is given are or programs are continued is rarely due to evaluation [2].  State has a bad reputation on planning and USAID’s past efforts at aid evaluation have been forgotten, understaffed, and upended by the creation of the Director of Foreign Assistance.  Rebuilding that capability is the first step; ensuring that decision makers utilize this information is the harder part.

In a nod to the fiscal challenges, the policy rightly suggests burden-sharing with multilateral institutions and allies based on comparative advantages of each.  The Obama administration has been working to repair the real and perceived damages of the Bush administration’s unilateralist approach.  The policy does not say what the U.S. focus should be and what would be better left to multilateral institutions.  In implementation, these multilateral institutions will not be a way to simply shift funding responsibility; U.S. contributions will still be needed to meet targets and to create a sense of buy-in.

The Obama policy emphasizes a new focus on “innovation.” With limited resources, this could be a way to focus spending so that it pays dividends, rather than doing a little bit here and there.  While a “means” not an “end,” investing in innovation focuses on areas of U.S. comparative advantage and leverages our technical know-how.   This is an area where public-private partnerships may be very successful.

The Proof of the Pudding Is In the Eating: Implementation and Management

One area of great contention has been the bureaucratic tussles over development policy leadership and how it factors into foreign policy.  The PSD and QDDR leaderships were reportedly at loggerheads for months.  USAID and State remain suspicious of one another and Congress lacks confidence in both.  It’s no longer news that grand plans for a department of development were not going to happen; what is surprising, however, is how small the steps are to consolidate development activities.  None of the diaspora of foreign assistance implementation programs is being integrated into USAID.

The “elevation” of development portions of the policy read like platitudes.  The organizational and process changes outlined in the policy are mostly not new [3] and contain many caveats.  The policy keeps the Secretary of State in the lead on foreign assistance and the Secretary of the Treasury for multilateral development banks; national security staff will lead the interagency development committees.  How specific State, USAID, and White House staff use these fora to make decisions will determine who has what power.

The role USAID plays at the policy decision making table will depend on whether it can take up the challenge it has so long asked for.  For too long USAID has been unable to play an effective role, having been hamstrung by resource constraints and its own inferiority complex.  Inviting USAID to the meeting is not issue, but getting the right person, who is empowered by the organization to speak for it and make decisions is hard.  Restoring the personnel and functions to USAID for internal budget management could create a greater sense of responsibility for leading on development policy, as long as clear roles are delineated with OMB and F.

The need for strategies for development is apparent.  Too many “initiatives,” mandates, external demands (e.g. the MDGs), and the use of development assistance as goodies for strategic partners means there is little room to maneuver.  Strategies to actually move countries into a higher level of development, using a range of assistance that is mutually reinforcing, and committing to long-term investment is difficult with the “pixie dust” approach to funding.   Having USAID manage crosscutting country strategies and sector strategies – based on evaluation – would be a good way to bring development policy into decision making processes and budgeting. Congressional direction and other authorities, however, have limited USAID’s role greatly in this regard.

Some Are More Equal Than Others: The 3-Ds

As this policy only addresses development – economic growth and investing in social programs – it does not make clear how security assistance, rule of law assistance, and response to complex contingencies will be managed and integrated.  Elevating the role of USAID, but limiting its scope to “development,” means that other departments, most especially and the Departments of State and Defense, will continue to play leadership roles that will constrain USAID’s role and ensure development policy remains in the service of foreign policy.


The views of the author are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State.

Laura A. Hall is a career civil servant at the U.S. Department of State and is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow.  She served in the Relief, Stabilization, and Development directorate at the National Security Council from 2006-2008.

[1] Clearly some areas will continue to get different emphasis, with family planning being the most obvious example.  In addition, there will always be certain “pet rock” issues that get more assistance within the overall pie (e.g. education, health, girls) or countries who are in greater favor.

[2] This is not unique to foreign assistance programs.  Efforts to measure other government programs have been equally difficult (GPRA, PMA, etc.) and have had little impact on budgetary decisions.

[3] USAID has always been invited to Principals and Deputies committee meetings and nothing prevented inclusion in National Security Council meetings.  There was already established an interagency policy coordination committee at the assistant secretary level.



1. Indicators, but Not a Strategy: Assessing the MDGs and US Assistance Strategy « Budget Insight - September 23, 2010

[…] Speaking of which, President Obama spoke today on his Administration’s new development strategy. Laura A. Hall has BFAD’s take on the speech here. […]

2. Indicators, but Not a Strategy: Assessing the MDGs and US Assistance Strategy « The Will and the Wallet - September 23, 2010

[…] his Administration’s new development strategy. Laura A. Hall has BFAD’s take on the speech here. Tagged: international development strategy, Millennium Development Goals, Obama foreign aid […]

3. David Greenlee - September 23, 2010

Sigh, in other words they have – once again – punted on the question of executive authority/management which means little hope for better program management – promises notwithstanding.

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