Friday, September 03, 2010

Mis-remembering USAID

In conversation with colleagues recently, various theories emerged as to what has happened to USAID over the years.  Too much of a contracting agency?  Too controlled by State?  Why has it lost so many professionals?

So I was left pondering how to explain USAID's "thinness", and started to refresh my memory about a few things that I'd once known.

 As it turns out, USAID changed considerably as a result of Al Gore. Yes. The whole "reinventing government" concept of the Clinton era led to a downsizing of staff, a perverse corollary of which was a thinning of evaluation and policy guidance. What I didn't find, but suspect, is that many of the USAID professionals who entered service in the 1970s or 80s left over time, phasing out their service by the 1990s or 2000s -- some quite naturally, due to generous pension plans (whereby USAID folks retire after 20 years, and start a second career -- I know someone in the foreign service younger than me who's planning on doing that in a couple of years, although now everyone only has 401ks, not pensions, so there are not the same incentives), some because of differences over changing policies, and some because of "reinventing government" downsizing.

 On the latter point, precisely when you might have gotten a whole new cadre of idealistic professionals under a Democratic administration, the opposite happened. By the time George W. Bush took office, his USAID Administrator, Andrew Natsios, noted that USAID had let its agricultural expertise and leadership melt away, devoting one billion dollars less to agriculture in 2002 than in 1985 (in 1985 dollars). USAID’s analytical capability in economics had suffered a similar fate, as USAID’s response to cuts in personnel funding had been to sacrifice technical expertise to preserve the jobs of managers.

And this the Clinton adminstration was quite proud of! Take this excerpt from a speech by Brian Atwood, Clinton's USAID administrator, in 1995:
No agency in government has worked more aggressively to embody the spirit of reinventing government than USAID. USAID is far leaner and more focussed than it was just 18 months ago. Eliminating USAID would send a devastating message to all federal employees -- reform is not important; doing your job well is not important; moving boxes around on an organizational chart is.

To begin our reform process, we offered the entire agency as a laboratory for Vice-President Gore's "Reinventing Government" effort. As a result, USAID has put sweeping changes in place. During the last year USAID has:   

  •  Announced the close-out of 27 overseas missions over the next three years and established a timetable for how long the agency should be involved in countries in which it currently operates;
  • Eliminated 90 organizational units in Washington; cut back 70 senior positions, and reduced total staff by over 1,000.
  • Developed a new electronic acquisition and procurement planning system that replaces 65 different systems and will eliminate tons of paperwork and expedite contracting.
  • Established interrelated goals around which financial and human resources are focused: encouraging broad-based economic growth; protecting the environment; building democracy; stabilizing world population growth and promoting human health; and providing humanitarian assistance and aiding post-crisis transitions.
  • Completed an agency-wide reorganization and "right-sizing" effort to streamline the agency.
  • Introduced reforms to open up USAID's procurement to the best expertise in America, whether that expertise is located in Seattle, Milwaukee or other places "outside the beltway."
  • Reduced project design time by 75 percent and developed a framework to unify USAID's multiple personnel systems.
Our efforts are succeeding. So much so that a member of the Ferris Commission which President Bush appointed to review USAID in 1993, said "This is the most remarkable transformation of a government agency I have ever seen."
What the above citation does not make reference to, though, is the collateral gutting of the policy and evaluation function within USAID. This began to be reversed at the end of the Bush administration, and now is being supposedly being revamped under this administration. See this note from a 2004 review of USAID evaluation:
The Government Performance Review Act (GPRA) and the advent of re-engineering in 1993 were cited most often by those interviewed as the turning point for the demise of the evaluation function in the Agency. The fact that Agency guidance is inconsistent, providing guidance in the Automated Directives System (ADS) that only "recommends" each Strategic Objective be evaluated once during its lifetime but elsewhere stating that submission of evaluations is MANDATORY, allows already overburdened Missions whose staff is inadequately trained in evaluation techniques to either ignore the evaluation requirement, the submission requirement or both.

With the push for performance monitoring and management for results, at some point Agency decision makers became confused and began to equate performance monitoring with evaluation. Thus, USAID has come to its current state - a meagerly-staffed evaluation office in the Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination and multiple, uncoordinated, sometimes unsatisfactory Bureau and Mission attempts at evaluating, often with little knowledge of solid evaluation techniques and certainly without systematic submission to the Agency's central knowledge repository.
On the issue of the impact of State Department control of USAID, I don't have much direct personal experience, as this only took place in 2006 (and my last work as a USAID contractor was in Feb. 2007). (One should not confuse the increasing oversight by State of USAID in 2001 with this later policy move.) There, one of the main issues seems to be the changing focus to short-term priorities over more long-term development goals, as noted by the Foreign Affairs piece in late 2008 (and cited in this TNR piece):
...Atwood joined two other former USAID administrators--M. Peter McPherson (Reagan) and Andrew Natsios (Bush II)--in penning an article for Foreign Affairs that criticized the 2006 decision to bring USAID under State Department control. The former administrators argued that the agency was focusing too much on the short-term provision of emergency goods and services, and not enough on long-term development work. “[R]esources devoted to postconflict transitions,” they lamented, “now exceed development investments in peaceful nations.”
But frankly, I think the other historic problems with USAID noted above are more important in explaining the precariousness of USAID's overall mission.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Chavez vs. Chavez

I was drawn to the comparison of the two Chavez's in Josh's Hemispheric Brief yesterday, especially by the op-ed by Prof. Jeffrey Rubin, who has lead a research team looking at social movements in recent years with funding from OSI's Latin America Program.  In reading the two pieces, I think the main point of both -- the fundamental flaws of personality-driven politics -- is missed in the brief characterization above, which mostly highlights the positive aspects of both men.

In fact, Miriam Pawel, a journalist who's just written a book about Cesar Chavez,  laments his over-idealization -- as one suspects from the title and subtitle: "Not just to praise Cesar:  Cesar Chavez has been elevated to iconic status without his legacy having been critically examined". The main thrust of her piece is as follows:
The first half of the story has been widely told and Chavez's place in history justly celebrated. His birthday is already a holiday in California and several other states. But the David-versus-Goliath victories are only a piece of the Chavez story.

Chief among the lessons we should take from his life is that heroes are human, with real flaws. You follow them blindly at your own risk. The biggest regret that many who worked closely with Chavez now express is that they did not speak up for what they believed in when it might have mattered. They failed to fight to keep building a labor union when Chavez veered determinedly toward his vision of a communal movement for poor people, based on an ideology of sacrifice.

A second lesson is that the inspirational leaders who build movements are not necessarily suited to run organizations. Chavez was a brilliant strategist, most comfortable in the adversarial role he termed the "nonviolent Viet Cong." By contrast, he dismissed as "nonmissionary work" the day-to-day routine of administering a labor union, negotiating contracts and resolving grievances. He lacked the interest to focus on those more mundane issues -- or the will to delegate the work to others and relinquish control.

His insistence on absolute control demonstrates a third lesson: When you empower people, they may not choose to wield their power toward the goals you believe they should. Chavez was a risk-taker, and he taught others to take risks. But trusting workers to run their own union was one risk he adamantly refused to take. That cost farmworkers the best chance they ever had at building an effective and lasting union.

None of this appears in California's official curriculum, a selective and glowing account of Chavez's life, developed in conjunction with his heirs and adopted by the state Board of Education to fulfill the law that established Cesar Chavez Day.
And the money grafs of the Rubin piece similarly highlight the "lessons" of Hugo Chavez as failing to promote real democratic norms:
For Cesar Chavez to have succeeded in his dream of dignity and well-being for farmworkers, he would have needed to combine his visionary commitment to building a movement with attention to the day-to-day details of making a labor union work for its members. He would have had to set up procedures for debate and voting – a democracy inside the UFW movement. Farmworkers needed a progressive movement and democracy to be able to take on the interests of the powerful and sustain the gains for which they fought so hard.

The same is true for Hugo Chávez. To make good on his promises of dignity and well-being for poor Venezuelans, he needs to combine his movement with real commitment to democratic institutions and procedures before it’s too late. That means freeing the radio stations and newspapers to say what they want, bringing fairness and robust competition back to courts and elections, and keeping social movements mobilized and in the streets.

The movements behind Chávez, in turn, need to press for real change while insisting on the means to hold leaders accountable, not signing over their autonomy to one big, Chávez-led project. Venezuelans need not only a movement in the streets but the working, day-to-day practices of democracy to forge more humane alternatives to the brutal market economy that has devastated their country.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Don't mess with Texas

From today's NYT book review of "Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire," a new book by historian Robert Perkinson:
As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America’s movement from, in his words, “the age of slavery to the age of incarceration,” with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars. And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology — an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation — that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson’s eyes, has provided a “template for a more fearful and vengeful society,” for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, “to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens.”

The template was mostly formed, according to “Texas Tough,” by slavery and its aftermath. Defeated in the Civil War, Texas and its Southern confederates were desperate to retain as much dominion as possible over their former slaves, and they found a way through law enforcement. Blacks seized for low-level crimes faced severe punishment with little chance of defending themselves in court. Perkinson tells of a black man sentenced to two years for stealing a pair of shoes and another sent away for five for snatching a bushel of corn. In the three years following the war, Texas’ inmate population nearly quadrupled — and darkened considerably in skin color, with former slaves soon outnumbering whites. Over the next few decades, these new black prisoners were rented out to an array of private businesses under a system known as convict leasing, which replicated slavery for its brutality and may well have exceeded it in disregard for human life....

Much as emancipation brought on a penal backlash against Southern blacks, so did the civil rights movement — except that this later reaction was national. Equal protection, desegregation and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty were quickly followed by tougher drug laws and crackdowns on crime that, with conscious intention or not, made blacks a target. Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Perverse incentives for law enforcement, at home and abroad

With help from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, the Washington Post today has a disturbing story today about ICE laying out perverse incentives for running up the numbers when it comes to deportations. Contrary to previous statements by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE chief John Morton that DHS would prioritize deportations of the most violent illegal immigrants, these reporters got their hands on some internal memos and spoke with anonymous employees detailing the new guidelines:

Since November, ICE field offices in Northern California, Dallas and
Chicago have issued new evaluation standards and work plans for enforcement agents who remove illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. In some cases, for example, the field offices are requiring that agents process an average of 40 to 60 cases a month to earn "excellent" ratings.

Such standards present a problem, said one San Francisco area agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal. Instead of taking a day to prepare a case against a legal resident with multiple convictions for serious crimes, agents may choose to process a drunk driver or nonviolent offender who agrees to leave the country voluntarily, because it will take only hours.

This reminds me of the numbers game that DEA and FBI agents working in Colombia are encouraged to play when working on extradition cases, as noted in a policy brief published last December by the Bogota-based Fundacion Ideas para la Paz (FIP). And their reporting was also based on interviews with former DEA and FBI agents:

“The DEA has statistical fever,” the same former DEA agent said. “You need to get those numbers.” By numbers he means arrests and extraditions. He added that during the reviews, his superiors would frequently ask him about why he did not have a higher number of arrests. “You won’t see it written down anywhere, but that’s what they care about,” the former DEA agent said, referring to the number of arrests.

A former FBI agent agreed with this assessment and said at times it applied to his agency as well, often for the budgetary reasons mentioned above. “Extradition of low level members of a drug trafficking organization, it’s a gimmee, it’s a bump in the stats. You got bodies. It doesn’t necessarily mean the investigation was particularly successful realistically speaking, but it looks good on paper. It looks good as far as the number of indictments and subsequent extraditions that came out of a particular case. Where again it’s easy. And if somebody happens to fall into that network that dragnet at the local level can be lumped into the conspiracy
they are. And the government agencies both in the host country and the US look all the more better for it. There’s a justification by numbers that needs to be demonstrated to hold on to whatever’s left of the counternarcotics portion of law enforcement’s budget because everything else is being diverted to national defense and counterterrorism.”