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Remembering the Contributions of USAID Staff: The Administrator’s Take (Part Two)

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Peter McPherson, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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I greatly appreciate the very nice comments about my time at USAID and also appreciate the major effort Mr. Norris put into his paper. What the story did not try to do, no doubt in part because of time and resource constraints, was identify by name and contribution the huge number of mostly career people at USAID who made a significant contribution to a country or region. Some of these contributions were part of an administrator’s stated big agenda, but many were unique to a country or region. They came from a commitment at various levels within USAID to get something done to solve a problem.  Inevitably, any such a listing of people and contributions would miss someone, but still what a story it would be.  These people and their collective efforts demonstrate how USAID has changed the world.

I have often wondered how such a history could be put together.  Along with others, Ray Love — a longtime USAID senior official — and I have considered the possibility. We need the history to not only properly thank those who’ve served, but also as an inspiration for the current USAID staff and the development community at large. Everyone needs to learn lessons of what worked in the past. We need that history to help sell Congress and the American people on the importance of continuing to fund USAID.  The agency put together some material for its 50th anniversary, but it was limited to some key stories as opposed to a complete history.  The State Department has an office that tracks and reports on its history and some good material about USAID is there and easily accessible. Of course each year some of the direct knowledge of that history is lost as people who lived it pass away.

We all need to consider how such a complete, living history could be organized and made publicly accessible so that the past and future accomplishments of USAID staff can get the attention they deserve.

The Clashes of the Nineties: The Administrator’s Take

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from J. Brian Atwood, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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John Norris has performed a service in recounting the highlights of USAID’s history. I am convinced that no organization in the world has contributed as much to development and humanitarian relief. He is correct in characterizing my tenure as tumultuous. But the battle over Senator Helms’ plan to merge with State did not prevent the Agency from taking new initiatives. The Agency got a lot done in those years and we set an agenda that lives to this day.

While I appreciate very much being remembered as the Administrator who saved the Agency, I must point out that no Administrator had as strong a group of appointees and career leaders. As a team we were not the least bit naïve about Capitol Hill politics or State Department pressures. Each of our presidential appointees possessed relevant Washington experience on the Hill, at the State Department, the White House and in politics, in addition to having solid development and/or relief backgrounds. They were supported by career professionals who were anxious to implement reforms to untie red tape.

Those reforms, undertaken in the first two years, are what saved the Agency. We created an operational model that has largely remained in place. We not only eliminated 26 overseas missions, we merged and/or eliminated bureaus in Washington. When one considers where the world of development is today with respect to local ownership, transparency, results measurement and mutual accountability, we were way ahead of our time.

We created a strategic framework for the Agency, narrowing down and rationalizing the principle objectives of the development mission. We flattened out the structure of our overseas missions, creating strategic objective teams who would work with local partners to determine specific goals, even signing agreements with them on how, when and what was to be accomplished. We insisted that results and failures be documented.

Within a few years a local university recognized the Agency as having submitted the most comprehensive annual report as required by the Government Performance and Review act. And the Ferris Commission that had issued a highly critical report on the Agency in the Administration of George H. W. Bush called our reforms “a dramatic transformation.”

We introduced the Office of Transitions Initiatives, filling a gap between our long-term development and relief programs. The concept of the relief-to-reconciliation-to-development continuum continues to characterize the approach adopted in post-conflict and fragile states. Today the United Nations and other bilateral donors have OTI-type units

Our commitment to transparency led to our desire to create a system that would allow our partners, Congress and the public to view real time information about expenditures, results and overall performance. Given Government Accountability Office audits about the Agency’s failure to account for taxpayers’ resources, we had to try to fix our systems; we wanted a system that would do more than just accounting.

Our plans were too ambitious and, like other government agencies (most recently HHS’ Affordable Care Act implementing system!), we could not solve the challenge of attempting to connect a sophisticated system with our over 100 missions. Technology had not yet evolved to make this possible. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I do not regret making the effort. This is exactly the kind of real-time information the International Aid Transparency Initiative encourages donors to provide today.

By far the most difficult issue I faced was the necessity to conduct a reduction in force (RIF) during my tenure. The USAID operations budget was under constant pressure from the Hill, particularly after the other party captured both houses of Congress. Some believe that the effort to modernize our accountability systems caused the RIF. However, we were in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If we didn’t try to fix the auditing systems, our operations budget would have suffered even deeper cuts.

This was the era of the “Contract With America” and the prevailing belief that the end of the Cold War demanded a “peace dividend.” But it was State and USAID, not DoD that suffered the large cuts. In future years DoD would complain that the civilian effort in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was inadequate. State and USAID budgets have grown, but they are still woefully inadequate given the challenges we face today.

Yes, the nineties were tumultuous times, but even so, USAID led the international development community in innovation. We pushed to set goals within the Development Assistance Committee and other donors agreed. These became the Millennium Development Goals. Now the entire world is being held accountable against these standards.

We promoted the idea that democratic governance was an essential aspect of sustainable development. That was controversial in those days. It is now settled development policy.

In the health sector, we led in the fight against malaria by offering evidence of the preventive benefits of bed nets. We promoted the fortification of food with vital vitamins, encouraged the use of disposable syringes and HIV/AIDS testing kits. We were in the forefront of the battle against climate change by helping developing countries modernize power plants to reduce emissions. We began the effort to help vulnerable countries become more resilient.

We also took our case to the American people and were rewarded with dozens of favorable editorials. Our “Lessons Without Borders“ program brought our professionals home to share experiences with domestic anti-poverty workers. We engaged young people in “Operation Day’s Work,” a Norwegian initiative that exposed school children to development programs. We didn’t lie down in the face of political opposition; we took our case to the country.

The story of the nineties for USAID was one of success in adversity. The credit should go to great career professionals and the best set of professional political appointees the Agency has seen (I will only name one here, my friend and former deputy Carol Lancaster who is battling cancer just as she battled everything else life threw her way).

Many of the ideas and concepts that grew out of the nineties are only now seeing their full potential. That would not have happened had USAID been merged into the State Department. The diplomatic and development missions are vitally important, but they operate on different time lines, require different management systems and their professionals have different skill sets. The “clashes” of the nineties brought out these realities. The tensions may remain, but the debate is over.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: Africa’s Dramatic Development Story

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at Brookings and MFAN Co-Chair. This post originally appeared on the Brookings blog on July 28th.

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With the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit taking place on August 4, now is a good time to reexamine the storyline around Africa. The continent has made progress in economic and social development well beyond expectations, but still has obstacles to overcome. It is time we approach the Africa narrative with enthusiasm, maybe cautious enthusiasm, but enthusiasm nonetheless.

Poverty and Development: The Pessimist’s Narrative

The two maps below reveal the story of the locus of extreme poverty shifting in a generation (1990 – 2010) from Asia and Africa to principally Africa. While there remain millions of people in Asia living in extreme poverty, the vast number of countries with extreme poverty affecting over 40 percent of the population are in Africa.

These maps reflect disturbing statistics. Africa is home to over 400 million people living in extreme poverty and three-quarters of the world’s poorest countries. One African in three is malnourished and over 500 million suffer from waterborne diseases. Twenty-four million Africans, nearly 70 percent of the global burden, are afflicted with HIV. Thirty million (one in four) primary-school-age African children and 20 million adolescents, are not in school.

According to the 2014 Fragile States Index the five countries in the highest category of fragility are all in Africa (South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan), and 10 of the 16 in the top-two most fragile categories are in Africa.

Turning the Page on the Past

But that is only part of the story. It would be easy to focus on these statistics and see Africa as hopeless, as has been all too common. But a more holistic picture reveals trends that are cause for considerable optimism. That picture is drawn by the maps presenting the level of absolute poverty in countries in Africa over the same period.

 What is striking is that the space representing poverty above 40 percent has shrunk, from 31 countries in 1990 to 22 countries in 2010. Delving deeper reveals a host of encouraging data.

Seventeen countries in Africa, accounting for over 40 percent of the population of the continent, have experienced a level of economic growth over 3 percent per capita since 1996. From 2000 to 2010, six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in Africa. Africa was the fastest-growing continent at 5.6 percent in 2013, and that momentum is expected to be sustained this year.

The poverty rate in Africa, estimated at 56.5 percent in 1990, is projected to fall to 42.3 percent in 2015. Most countries have achieved universal primary enrollment rates of 90 percent or higher. The primary school completion rate has risen from 53 percent in 1993 to 70 percent in 2011.

Almost half the countries of Africa have achieved gender parity in school. The proportion of women in national parliaments has reached nearly 20 percent, a milestone that only developed countries and Latin America have achieved.

Improvements in health have been dramatic. The under-five mortality rate declined by 47 percent, from 146 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 91 deaths in 2011. Maternal mortality fell by 42 percent, from 745 deaths per 100,000 live births to 429 deaths over the same period. The once seemingly unstoppable HIV/AIDS rate has, in fact, been reversed, with prevalence rates dropping from 5.9 percent in 2001 to 4.9 percent in 2011. Tuberculosis and malaria remain serious problems, but their spread has been largely stopped.

U.S. Assistance to Africa: Writing the Next Chapter

While external private investment flows have been a growing source of capital for Africa—a fivefold increase from major partners in the past decade as explained in a recent blog by my Brookings colleagues—for many countries in Africa foreign assistance remains an important source of development finance. One way to get a crude indication of the relative importance of foreign assistance is to compare it to the size of government revenues. The map below shows 20 countries in Africa for which total foreign assistance is equivalent to more than 40 percent of the national budget.

If one wonders whether Africa is a priority for U.S. assistance policy, just look at the numbers. At the 2005 Gleneagles Summit, the G-8 committed to increase assistance by $50 billion, half for Africa. The U.S. subsequently more than doubled its aid to Africa. Today, the U.S. and World Bank IDA (International Development Agency) vie as the largest donor to Africa, with shares at 17 percent of total assistance flows to Africa each. The next biggest donor is the European Union at 10 percent, followed by France, the United Kingdom and Germany, in that order.  In fact, aid to Africa from European nations has declined the last several years while the U.S. has maintained its Gleneagles commitment.

The U.S. priority for Africa has grown over the past decade. In 2002 U.S. economic development assistance (not counting humanitarian assistance) to Africa was 17 percent of total U.S. economic assistance. That percentage has steadily grown over the past decade to 40 percent for both FY2014 (estimated) and the budget request for FY2015. The priority given to Africa is even more impressive when you consider that U.S. budget levels for foreign assistance peaked in 2010, in which year 32 percent of U.S. economic development assistance was devoted to Africa. Despite a decline of approximately 20 percent of budget levels for all development assistance from 2010 to 2014, the magnitude of assistance for Africa has remained above $6 billion per year, accounting for Africa’s continued rise in percentage of total U.S. economic development assistance.

As with the U.S., Africa is a rising priority for China As reported by Yun Sun in a companion blog, Africa represented 46 percent of Chinese aid in 2009 but 52 percent in 2010-2012. The major difference between U.S. and Chinese assistance to Africa is that Chinese assistance is principally for infrastructure and economic activities, with negligible amounts for humanitarian purposes, and is mostly loans. In contrast, U.S. assistance is concentrated in the social sectors and is almost all grants. In addition, the U.S. is the major provider of humanitarian assistance to Africa.

For the past decade, health has been the main focus of U.S. assistance to Africa, accounting for approximately 80 percent of total U.S. economic assistance in recent years. But after a decade of growth, that focus may be begin to change to reflect the 2012 White House strategy statement on U.S. policy toward Africa. That policy document emphasizes governance, economic growth and trade, and peace and security. The accompanying chart shows the proposed shift in funding into those accounts in the FY2015 budget request. Whether Congress will go along with that shift remains to be seen.

Power Africa

One particularly recent innovative U.S. program is Power Africa, announced by President Obama in June 2012. Some 600 million Africans live without electricity. The goal of the program is to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa by adding 10,000 megawatts to output. The innovations in the program are multifold. Rather than the typical sequence of designing the program and then inviting in the private sector, the design started with canvassing the needs of private sector energy investors. Furthermore, the program joins together a focus on both governance and finance and operates across the U.S. government.

The initiative, led by USAID, involves 12 U.S. government agencies, some 40 private companies, and six African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania). The U.S. government has committed $7 billion in financing over five years, and private companies have committed another $ 14 billion. Development of the program involved identifying specific private sector investments that have not moved beyond the planning phase because of inhospitable host government regulations and policies, or inaction, and/or insufficient financing. In addition to providing financing, the equally important part of the program is the effort to help remove restrictive host country policies and regulations, and institute policies that more rationally regulate and encourage private investment.

Interest in Power Africa has grown in the U.S. Congress since it was announced. Congress may even up the ante on the president. HR 2548 (Electrify Africa Act) passed the House on May 5, and the companion Senate bill S 2014 (Energize Africa Act), would double the goal of Power Africa to 20,000 megawatts.

The development story in Africa is still being written. The African leaders who come to Washington in early August will have a large voice in how that story plays out. There remain many causes for concern, but more reasons for optimism.

Let’s forget about pledging a host of deliverables and hope that the result of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is a frank exploration of the needs and potential for Africa, and a no-nonsense appraisal of how the U.S. can be most helpful. Let’s hope that the impact is to expand the priority that Africa holds for U.S. policy and show that this is a story in which the U.S. is determined to play its part.

Sampling IATI data round 1: Lessons learned

Thursday, July 10th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Ruth Salmon, Research Assistant at Publish What You Fund. Salmon is the lead on data collection for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index. This post originally appeared on Publish What You Fund’s blog on July 7, 2014.

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Data collection continues for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index (ATI). And for the first time, we are sampling documents and data on the results, conditions and sub-national location published to the IATI Registry in XML format.

Sampling essentially means manually checking that the information provided is specific to that activity, has been appropriately tagged using IATI codes, and that it adheres to the ATI indicator guidelines.

The prospect of sampling documents and data for 16 ATI indicators, covering 25+ IATI standard elements, across 27 IATI publishers, was a daunting one. But we knew we had to plough our way through to ensure the information published about aid is relevant and of good enough quality to be used.

Yet this task turned out to be much more fun – and much less arduous – than we feared.

The good examples we found highlighted the potential of IATI data. There were plenty of things to get excited about. We’re happy to note in this first round of sampling that 82% of the 27 IATI publishers sampled passed the sampling checks for the indicators they publish.

The Good

As we clicked through the documents and IATI excerpts randomly selected for us by our sampling tool, there were many examples of good practice:

  • Subnational geo-coding: The European Commission’s Foreign Policy Instrument Services, the Netherlands, African Development Bank (AfDB)  and the World Bank are all publishing excellent geo-coded data, enabling us to see the coverage of project activities clearly within each country.drc-location
  • Results documents and data: Some results information clearly shows whether activities have achieved their intended outputs against stated goals. GAVI, Asian Development Bank (AsDB), Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), World Bank, and DFID have some great results documents, and Global Fund, Sweden and Canada  have some good examples of structured data.mcc-results
  • Appropriate language use: Several organisations (IADB, AfDB, UNDP) are publishing documents and IATI data fields using the language of the recipient country, making it more accessible for in-country users.

The Bad

Some less than helpful trends emerged too…

  • Over tagging: Some organisations are linking many documents to a single IATI category code, even when the code isn’t relevant to that document. This effectively renders the use of codes meaningless, making it very difficult to find the information you seek.
  • Inaccessible data: On a few occasions we were unable to access documents because of broken links. The use of scanned PDFs also makes the data difficult to parse and scrape. Document links led to generic web pages, with no clues on how to find documents for specific activities. Some samples were difficult to understand due to the acronyms and shorthand used to describe information.
  • Incoherence within data: Occasionally the codes used in the IATI data didn’t match the documents tagged. For example, country strategies tagged as organization strategies. There are several cases where the data specifies that no conditions are attached but conditions documents, with clear conditions outlined, are tagged!

The Ugly

Finally, a tiny percentage the IATI data we sampled was incomprehensible. Activities had no titles or descriptions, and were just lists of unlabelled transactions. This makes the information fairly useless to pretty much everyone. Queue many unrepeatable mutterings, long sighs and exasperated researchers.

The reality hit that it’s not possible to truly celebrate IATI publication until it is done well. Done badly, it serves very little use at all.

In summary…

Sampling has showed us the potential of using XML for publishing aid data for a wide variety of organisations. The elements of the IATI code had been used in many different ways, depending on what fits best with organisation’s particular structure and activities. When accurate and well-coded, it became clear that IATI data makes it easy to compare aid spending across time, space and many organisation types.

But it has also shown that unless the IATI standard is adhered to, the information published runs the risk of being difficult to understand, difficult to access, and difficult to reuse. Although it’s our impression that the majority of the errors we found were unintentional, it’s important that they are fixed to deliver on the full potential of IATI – of comprehensive, comparable aid data.

Now with data collection complete for 2014, we’re busy finalising and analysing the dataset so we can see this year’s results. Watch this space!

Investing in Childhood: Building a Better Future for Mothers and Children in Afghanistan

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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A few weeks ago, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on how crucial it is to keep Afghanistan on the right track, so that the country can build upon the many gains and accomplishments already made. This will require continued investment, monitoring and accountability to ensure that short-term progress can evolve into long-term change for all Afghans, especially children and their families.

Save the Children has worked in Afghanistan since 1976. We have seen families struggle through decades of conflict and we know that an investment in children is the best way to build a better future for all Afghans. We have responded to droughts, floods and refugee crises in Afghanistan to help families when crisis strikes and we work every day to give children a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm—things that every child deserves, no matter where they’re born.

In the past several years, it has become clear that our investment—and the investment of donor governments, global partners and Afghan leaders—is paying off in the lives of families. The increased availability of basic health services and training of community health workers who bring care to families in remote areas means better health outcomes, especially for vulnerable women and children.

In Save the Children’s annual State of the World’s Mothers report, for example, war-torn Afghanistan ranked as the toughest place on earth to be a mother in 2010 and 2011. This ranking is based on 5 key indicators: maternal mortality, child health, women’s educational opportunity, women’s economic status and women’s political representation—a lens through which to look at the experience of motherhood in countries around the world. Afghanistan’s place at the bottom of the list just a few short years ago speaks to the incredibly difficult circumstances in which Afghan mothers found themselves.

But in our latest report, released in May of this year, Afghanistan moved up an unprecedented 32 places in the ranking. This is thanks to the country’s investment in midwives, so mothers and newborns are safe at the dangerous time of birth; its dedication to providing lifesaving immunizations and other health interventions for newborns and young children; and its changing policies on education, so more girls can attend school.

Afghanistan has reduced maternal deaths by two thirds in 15 years, an almost unheard of accomplishment especially in a country experiencing ongoing conflict. In 2001, one of every four children born in Afghanistan died by the age of five; in 2014 that number is one in ten. These numbers are worth celebrating—it’s important to recognize the investment of so many partners who saw a reason to hope when the situation was bleak, and a reason to invest in children and mothers who deserved so much more.

Progress in education has been slower, especially for girls. Since 2002 the number of girls attending school increased by over 30%, although an estimated 1.5 million school-age girls are still not enrolled in classes.  Today, only 40% of Afghan girls attend elementary school and only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade.  This is a huge area for improvement—and further investment can help Afghan girls access the best possible tool to build a better world for themselves and their families: education.

As Afghanistan and the world awaits the results of last weekend’s presidential run-off election, it’s more important than ever to look to the future.  Afghanistan is a potential success story of the power of foreign assistance—but it still has a long way to go. With smart aid, partner collaboration and remembering that an investment in a child is always a good investment, we can help Afghan children and families write the next chapter of the country’s remarkable progress.