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.

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