Why USAID’s New Approach to Development Assistance Is Stalled

Speaking Out


     A black Chrysler pulls out of the gate of the U.S. embassy compound in Rabat followed by a security detail in an SUV. My Moroccan colleague and I are walking down a public sidewalk when a city policeman holds up his hand and signals us to stop while the two cars pass. After they do, we start walking again, but the policeman waves us away.
     “I’m sorry, but you cannot go this way,” he says.
     “Why not?” we ask. He replies that the U.S. embassy does not allow walking on the part of the street that faces the embassy gate.
Bledna! (This is our country!),” my Moroccan colleague shouts. But the policeman has his orders. He smiles apologetically and waves us to another street.

During the course of an independent study financed indirectly by the U.S. Agency for International Development that took me and my colleagues to 14 USAID offices on three continents—with all but three offices now located inside the U.S. embassy grounds—it became clear how insulated agency staff have become from the countries in which they work. And this is the case at a time when USAID is ostensibly committed to working more directly with local organizations (and so beginning the long-delayed process of “working ourselves out of a job”).

Under former Administrator Rajiv Shah’s USAID “Forward” reform program, the agency set a goal of 30 percent of its resources going to local organizations by 2015, including local governments, civil society and firms in the private sector. That goal was not met, and USAID now refers to it as merely “aspirational.”

Besides the intention to redirect the flow of money, the core of the Forward agenda was a commitment to what was called “local solutions” (now called localworks) aimed at the establishment of “close, personal working relationships” with local governments, civil society and the private sector. That commitment has gained very little traction, despite the good intentions.

USAID’s growing isolation from the countries it seeks to help leads to frustration on the part of many of its best people, as well as engendering some disdain for the “locals” who are less and less understood. USAID needs to examine in depth the various causes of this counterproductive trend. In the following discussion of highlights from our findings, I outline the problems and present some possible solutions.

Isolation and Frustration

In the overseas missions we visited, with rare exception, USAID’s American personnel formed very few meaningful local relationships and tended to be uninformed or misinformed about local organizations and trends. Outside key government ministries and well known capital city–based organizations, they had limited knowledge of who was who, or what was going on in the rural areas—not to mention an understanding of the nuances of culture and social structure, and the ways in which these affect the country’s political economy.

Moving from post to post every three or four years, USAID’s American personnel tend to make assumptions based on past reports, talking with colleagues in other aid agencies or interacting with a few “usual suspects” in the capital cities. Enthusiastic and bright new staff often talked to us about their frustration.

Typical was this lament from a young staffer on her first overseas posting: “I got out more in the beginning, but it’s very hard to do. I’m being asked to support an approach with partners, but don’t know really what’s going on out there and who they are. You’re always led by other imperatives.”

Also typical is the complaint by a young USAID officer who had spent four years in Zambia and was then posted to a French-speaking country, without any knowledge of the language. Though he is taking weekly courses at USAID’s expense, he said: “By the time I’ll be able to communicate with someone in this country, I’ll be ready to leave.”

The isolation of USAID personnel has an effect on those with whom the agency would like to establish close working relationships. “Why bother?” they ask themselves. As an Asian government health official who works with USAID projects told us: “I’m getting tired of having to educate anew each new USAID health officer who comes in every two or three years. We don’t get anywhere because we always need to start from scratch.”

In our conversations with more than 70 USAID staff in overseas missions, we detected an underlying patronizing attitude. Use of the term “the locals” is common; and after a year at post, some staff begin to cast their hosts in terms of two-dimensional stereotypes that tend toward a dismissive throwing up of one’s hands, if not contempt. There is frustration at the difficulty in convincing “them” to do things our way, and exasperation at certain native habits. Rather than trying to penetrate a foreign culture, many surrender to a “that’s just how they are” mantra.

Perhaps the most constant refrain was that we are being “ripped off”—“they” just cannot be trusted with our money. A civil society leader in East Africa who has had experience working with the agency told us: “They [USAID] are all about the ‘gotcha.’ That’s how they are recruited and, more important, that’s how they are trained. They need to listen—the starting point [with local partners] has to be ‘we both want the same thing.’ But instead, they go in [to an agreement or a contract] with the belief that ‘you’re trying to screw us.’ They are simply not going to be able to get into a relationship of understanding with local organizations with that mentality.”

Back in Washington, a recently retired officer with 30 years at USAID asked reflectively: “Are we good listeners? Is our decision-making based on evidence? Or do we appear arbitrary or ideological? Do we appreciate and respect a given country’s political and economic accomplishments? Or do we appear dismissive, disrespectful, untrusting and arrogant? Are we distinguished by our presence—are we out and around, easy to find, see, speak to and understand? Are our agendas and processes clear? Or are we invisible, distant, impossible to reach and understand, opaque?”

Security Constraints

There are a number of reasons for both the isolation and the related hints of contempt that we found. Most lie in the physical, bureaucratic and human resource realms, and so there is some hope for change, at least in the latter two. As for physical isolation, this key constraint has to do with 9/11 and the perceived need to reduce the risks to U.S. official personnel overseas—and it is unlikely to change.

The architecture of embassy compounds, into which more and more USAID offices have been required to move, has become fortress-like (if not prison-like); many have slit windows and 300-pound steel doors and on the outer perimeters, razor wire and concrete barricades. Significantly, the FY 2016 budget request for the Department of State included $4.8 billion in “Support to Embassy Security”—that’s the equivalent of one-third of USAID’s entire budget.

It is hard, even for visiting Americans, to get into the compounds. People from local civil society, municipal government units and private firms who have gone through the experience tend not to want to do it again. Visitors must be accompanied everywhere (even to the door of the rest room, though thankfully not inside, or at least not yet). Passports and cell phones are surrendered. Muscles are strained opening the heavy doors.

Leaving the compound, essential for USAID staff to be able to develop those close relationships, is almost equally daunting. The joke we heard a few times from USAID personnel is that it is as hard to get out of the embassy compound as it is to get in.

Surely something could be done about the bureaucratic constraints against more spontaneous outside visits. At the least, the current process could be streamlined. Traveling to a rural area for four or five days, for example, requires (in most cases) submitting an application, justifying it, waiting for both budget and senior management approval, and then applying to the transport office for the allocation of vehicle and driver, and sometimes a security detail—all of which takes a lot of time and paperwork.

Moreover, the nature of the routine workflow makes superiors reluctant to allow any extended interruptions. According to the Tanzania mission director, interviewed in late 2014, as much as 60 percent of staff time goes to reporting and routine paperwork.

In a few places, the logistics of travel are made still more cumbersome. When we visited Angola, it was policy that any official going on a field trip needed two vehicles—one for him or her and their colleagues and one for guards.

The easiest way for a USAID mid-level officer to visit a project or talk to local officials or leaders is to accompany a delegation of “visiting firemen” from the United States. But these photo-opportunity visits are not likely to generate added value in terms of insights into local developments.

When a delegation of five to 10 guests in a convoy of vehicles visits a rural water project where 60 villagers are arrayed in a circle under a big tree, and a sign has been put up thanking USAID, you are not going to learn much about what is really going on in the country.

Of course, in the end, easing bureaucratic constraints is a matter of political will and priorities. If USAID were to embrace more forcefully the need to know more deeply what is going on in a country and the need to build more solid relationships with local players, ways would be found to get out and about much more.

Recruitment and Deployment Policy

Similarly, on the human resource side of things, changes could be made—for instance, in recruitment and deployment policies. The origin of the two-to-fouryear posting rule is obscure, but it has (or had) something to do with the fear of “going native,” being co-opted or losing objectivity.

Yet some form of going native is exactly what is needed, knowing the language being the obvious first step. Moving from Moldova to Sri Lanka to Rwanda, and then to Nicaragua, in the course of 15 years is not a recipe for deep understanding or strengthening of language skills. There is no good reason why this policy could not be seriously revised to allow (and even incentivize) people to stay much longer at a post.

And why not recruit more people who already have relevant language skills in the first place? In the 1960s and 1970s, USAID (which was founded in 1961) hired public health specialists, engineers, soil scientists and agricultural economists—people with professional knowledge in their respective field. There were very few degree programs in “development” as a profession.

Today there are more than 40 degree programs in the United States that annually produce several thousand technocrats trained in the business of development aid (with specialized degrees in development project management, monitoring and evaluation, or project design).

The USAID recruitment process, itself technocratic, is far more geared to looking at these kinds of degrees and, thus, evaluating the candidates’ ability to manage the rules of compliance, set up a monitoring matrix or conduct strategic planning than considering their personality or character, much less their understanding of the complexities of poverty.

Ultimately, changing recruitment policy is a matter of corporate culture. Moving from a paint-by-the-numbers approach to a more holistic approach that takes the whole person into account would signal a firmer commitment to the view that USAID’s human resources are central to the agency’s future.

Last year USAID had about 9,500 staff in 92 overseas missions and seven regional offices. About 40 percent of these are local staff (who still prefer to be referred to as FSNs, or Foreign Service Nationals, rather than their new, official designation as Locally Employed or LE staff).

These people are the backbone of the in-country mission, the agency argues. It is they who have the corporate memory, understand the language and the culture, and know who is who and what is what.

This may be so, but the problem is the degree to which they are encouraged and willing to use what they know. In poorer countries, especially, a job with USAID is a coveted one, and not to be put at risk by telling supervising Americans that this or that project won’t work, or that this or that “partner” is a charlatan.

Moreover, like mid-level employees in a large bureaucracy anywhere, they know from experience that these superiors will leave in a couple of years, and new initiatives will come and go. So keeping quiet and doing what one is told is a sensible choice.

The Stakes Are High

USAID’s “localworks” is a critically important agenda, a much-needed new way of doing its work. But the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is wide, and much of it has to do with the mundane matters discussed here. The political will to change is lacking, and bureaucracies in any case tend to layer new good habits on top of old bad ones rather than shedding the latter.

But the stakes are high because the world in which the agency works is changing more rapidly than ever. The “locals” are beginning to push back, demanding that the aid establishment get behind the idea of “country ownership” and start reducing the billions of dollars that go to U.S. firms. (Last year more than $5 billion in USAID subcontracts went to just 30 U.S. firms.)

These global changes demand a force of thoughtful and reflective people who are both outgoing and empathetic, and who are freed-up and encouraged to get to know the countries in which they work and listen to those who do know. Above all, they need to be humble and honest about the degree to which “our” solutions to “their” problems are really appropriate.

Tom Dichter’s career in international development spans 50 years of life and work in more than 60 developing countries. A Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco in the early 1960s and, much later, a Peace Corps country director in Yemen, he was vice president of TechnoServe, a program officer at the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva, a researcher on development issues for the Hudson Institute and a consultant for many international agencies, including the United Nations Development Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, USAID, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, as well as for the Austrian and Philippine governments. He is the author of Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003) and co-editor of What’s Wrong with Microfinance? (Practical Action Press, 2007).