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The Battle of the Logos

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By Mark Green, Ambassador and Congressman (ret.)

I recently began posting a series of pieces with some of the reasons why I believe (a) America needs foreign assistance reform and (b) Conservatives should take up the cause.  Done right, foreign assistance can play a crucial role in our foreign policy. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t “done right” or, at least, done as well as it could be.

Here are my first four reasons:

Reason 1: Our current foreign aid system is organizationally incoherent.

Reason 2:  We need to reform the system to make our precious taxpayer dollars go much further.

Reason 3: Foreign assistance reform is a great opportunity for Conservatives to reaffirm values and initiatives we care about. 

Reason 4: Simply put, Conservatives (and Republicans) have a long history of standing up for EFFECTIVE foreign assistance.

And now . . . Reason 5: The combination of fragmented authorities and overlapping bureaucracies in our current assistance framework is watering down public diplomacy efforts.

Foreign assistance is a crucial part of public diplomacy.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks eloquently about the need for “smart power” in these challenging times. Her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, emphasized the ability for “diplomacy by deeds” to shape our image in far off lands. Whatever the terminology, the concept is straightforward: America enhances its image, and its prospects, when it is seen to be helping those in need.  Words are the currency of traditional diplomacy, but tangible deeds can be more eloquent than any cable or speech or public statement.

Here’s another way of looking at it: the late Jack Kemp, a Conservative hero to many (myself included), liked to say that “people need to know that you care before they care what you know.” Foreign assistance projects do just that, opening hearts and ears to the American message.

However, the deeds-based approach is only as effective as the messaging effort that follows it. We must make sure that people know the good work that is being done and that it ultimately comes from the American people. Unfortunately, our archaic patchwork of fragmented authorities and bureaucratic structures often undermines that effort.

These days, there are approximately 12 departments, 25 agencies and 60 separate government offices involved in administering foreign assistance.  With overlapping jurisdictions, conflicting rules and procedures, and differing organizational cultures, they often confuse those they mean to serve.  They may even unintentionally mislead the public into thinking that one or more of them are independent or even non-governmental. After all, what logical government would use handfuls of different agencies to work in a single country . . .perhaps even on a single project?

One symptom of this bureaucratic labyrinth is what I refer to as the “battle of the logos.” And it’s one of the many annoyances that Conservatives can fix when they take up foreign assistance reform.

The Battle of the Logos

In my first weeks at post as Ambassador to Tanzania, I attended numerous ribbon-cuttings for U.S.-funded health clinics, Malaria Logos 1school dormitories and other projects only to see banners with countless logos and acronyms plastered all over.  Some of the acronyms were alien to me – from organizations I hadn’t heard of before.  As a group, they were sometimes so large and colorful that they took up more space and attention than the actual “message” – something noticed by many of the Tanzanian officials in attendance.  Even if it meant distracting from that message, the organizations involved apparently wanted to make sure that their “brands” were noticeably on display.

In some cases, the named organizations on display were private ones with whom the U.S. government had contracted to implement or administer programs.  However, the bold banners and shiny plaques made it appear that it was their own money that was building that clinic or paying for those books.  My guess is that a good many of the Tanzanians in attendance had no idea that it was American taxpayers, not the named organization, that had been so generous. In fact, I can recall an event in which a Tanzanian official went to great lengths to thank a university for its great generosity in launching a global health project – even though that university was actually just implementing a grant it had received from the National Institutes of Health.

The Battle of the Government Logos

What was even more frustrating was the hodgepodge of government agency logos that adorned each banner and brochure.  Just as with non-governmental logos, they seemed to take up too much space and distract from any underlying message.  More significantly, some of the logos and acronyms were obscure enough that observers couldn’t have known they were actually referring to the U.S. government. Most Americans don’t know what acronyms like MCC, FSA, PEPFAR, PMI, USADF, USTDA and others stand for.  What are the chances that my Tanzanian friends wouldn’t recognize them?

Like most Conservatives, I believe that while foreign assistance should help those in need, it must also help America’s image and interests on the world stage. We support foreign assistance because it is the right thing to do, but also because – done right – it is the smart thing to do.  But again, how “smart” can a project be if its funding source is hidden by bureaucratic branding and self-promotion?PMI microscope close up

As ambassador, I tried to push back against all of this. First, I issued an embassy-wide directive creating a unified logo — an American flag with the phrase “From the American People” in Kiswahili — and called for it to be on every press statement and event banner.  I asked my team to send that message out to our implementing partners as well, and spoke about my “rule” at a USAID sponsored planning session with those partners. I let everyone know that I wouldn’t attend ribbon cuttings or groundbreakings unless there was a banner behind me with our new logo design.

I also created a business card-sized piece of literature — one that could be folded out into a small “table tent” – which bore the new logo and then summarized, by the numbers, just how much assistance American taxpayers were providing in Tanzania. Every member of my embassy team, American and Tanzanian, was supposed to carry it with him or her so he or she could answer the question, “What is America doing to help?”  Each member was supposed to leave one of these cards at their stops when they traveled in country.

A Good Job for Conservatives

It’s important to realize that our assistance network is made up of lots of good, dedicated professionals who are devoted to lifting lives and building communities in the countries where they serve.  It’s the system that is the problem.tshirt photo

In my battle of the logos example, some of my embassy team pointed out to me that federal offices and agencies often had rules that attempted to govern and even mandate the use of their brands in the field. Many federal agencies had sent out strict guidelines governing the use of their logos in these situations.  In some cases, they sent out “rules” directing not only the  use of their logos, but the size and position of the logos relative to other agencies’ brands.

Policymakers and opinion leaders back here in the States, especially Conservatives, need to get involved because bureaucracies never reform themselves . . . not willingly and not sufficiently.  As Ronald Reagan liked to say: “Bureaucrats do cut red tape – they just do it lengthwise.”

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3 Responses to “The Battle of the Logos”

  1. Kevin Barthel says:

    Mark, good and fair post which begs me to respond.

    The overly specific ‘branding/logo’ mandates of USAID for example are clear and we can, I suppose, hope they will be addressed by the on-going State and Congress-led initiative to rationalize foreign assistance which unfortunately appears to be continually delayed.

    In most cases in my experience, the logo issue is to the point of comical throughout the world involving all donors, NGOs, contractors and government agencies…. e.g., look at any brochure from just about any development project in Brazil…. although the logos are becoming much more creative and appealing. As an aside – which truly is relevant for cost purposes – there is now a sub-sector of ‘development’ consulting which is focussed on art, campaign and branding. Without commenting on the cost aspects – everyone would admit that the logos are getting much more artistic and yet more costly.

    I thought (I guess suspected) that development ‘entities’ were more interested in – and mandated to – reduce poverty and increase livelihoods. If that is the case and they could effectively publish their achievements, then the ‘indicators’ should be enough promotion for their effort – yet the logo-splashed T-shirt mentality persists.

    In many cases it is promotion/marketing over development…. and therein lies the fundamental problem. How much of development is considered results vs. message? Every tee-shirt and baseball hat that is distributed is message and marketing for the donor and also the company hired to execute the donor’s scope of work. Obviously message is important to get buy-in – but results are paramount. How much did the T-Shirt or Baseball Cap in Nicaragua help to reduce poverty or even help to change a perspective of the USA? In economic terms – it is probably just a ‘cool hat’ that a farmer in Leon covers his head with against the hot sun. If he links what is says on his hat with an opportunity to increase in his livelihood or his intention or plan to do something different this year to increase his livelihood and then the hat was a good investment in development funds. Plus, the factor increase when another farmer asks him about his hat, he explains his benefits and the knowledge is transferred and results are replicated – increased – that is important.

    Let’s move from micro to macro focus…. in the case of the USA, in a situation where fiscal austerity and budget cutting is now obviously needed, foreign assistance is an easy target for perhaps legitimate reductions. Under this scenario, the importance of foreign assistance needs to articulated in terms people in northern wisconsin (only as an example) can appreciate…. and needless wastes of scarce budget on unnecessary branding logos etc need to be eliminated.

    Providing a compassionate yet conditional development ‘leg-up’ to individuals and companies in those countries whose governments support the free market, the rule of law, secure property rights, invest in the education, health and empowerment of their citizens and reject corruption – all principles that serve as the foundation of the USA – should be fostered through foreign assistance.

    Given today’s overspending at the federal and local level and the massive national debt and entitlement obligations – the challenge is to make sure the expense of every dollar of US Tax Payer’s investment is efficient, effective and accountable. Seeing all foreign assistance through this ‘lens’ is not only important to be fiscally responsible but effective in development.


  2. [...] Green posted another blog in his series for the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, which you can read in its original format here.  It is also reposted [...]

  3. SteveinVT says:

    Ambassador Green,

    Your points on conflicting logos are well-taken. Let me offer a few counterbalancing remarks:

    1) If the government issues a contract then I agree it should be the government logo on the product. However, if the government issues a grant that is a different ball game. Those funds are given to the organization and the organization’s board has fiduciary responsibility for the proper disposition of those funds. In short, the NGO has primary responsibility – it is taking financial risk, it is providing IP and very often its own funding. Why should USAID or PEPFAR have exclusive labeling rights if the program is being co-funded by a foundation or other donor?

    3) Your comment that somehow conservatives can promote reform is ironic. USAID’s cumbersome branding guidelines were developed under the Bush Administration…. This is also the same group fo conservatives who created PEPFAR, MCC and the dreaded F-Bureau. Maybe this is a generational thing – I am only in my mid-30s – but I have seen no evidence in my lifetime that conservatives cut or simplify bureaucracy!

    4) If you want the credit, you have to accept responsibility too. In my experience, when a project goes bad – inevitable in development – funders (USG or otherwise) suddenly lose their interest in branding. Did you see Frontlines the other night? USAID put quite a bit of $$$ into Playpumps – are you disappointed that there is no logo on the side of those non-working well tanks? As an Ambassador how would you feel visiting that village? The point here is that development is a risky undertaking and there is a very high failure rate – if you want to put your stamp on success, you have to ready to accept responsibility for failure too.

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