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Archive for the ‘USAID’ Category

At USAID, it’s bye bye bureaucracy, hello local competition

Friday, January 13th, 2012
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This blog post was written by MFAN Partner Porter McConnell, Policy and Advocacy Manager, Aid Effectiveness Team, Oxfam America. The post originally appeared on Oxfam America’s Politics of Poverty blog.

As part of a broader reform effort to make U.S. foreign aid more effective, USAID is peeling away layers of bureaucracy, bit by bit. The latest casualty in this battle against obscure and painful regulations that get in the way of helping people help themselves? A little thing called the Source, Origin, and Nationality regulation, or S/O/N. The S/O/N led USAID to buy much of the goods it needed in the field from the U.S., and submitting to a lengthy waiver process when this was impractical or costly. After a year-long public consultation, reforms to this clunker of a rule went live this week.

Wangari Matthai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD, and she went on to become a lifelong environmental activist. She passed away in 2011. Photo:

Now that USAID has used its authority under law to change the S/O/N rule, it can buy the goods it needs not just from the U.S., but also from the country where the good is being used, or another low income country with a competitive price. But wait, isn’t buying American a good thing, you ask? Well, not always. If it’s ten times as expensive and takes months to get there, it’s probably not the best use of taxpayer dollars, especially when delay could cost peoples’ lives. Also, if your goal is to help people in poor countries help themselves, you probably want to support the local small businesses that employ those people, so they can feed their families, and be less dependent on our aid, right? In that case, buying American is shooting ourselves in the foot.

Fixing the S/O/N is just one regulation peeled back in a much larger battle. There are still plenty of other senseless or antiquated regulations whose demise would make a big difference for the lives of poor people overseas, and also save U.S. taxpayer dollars. Ultimately, the best use of U.S. foreign aid dollars is to invest in genuine partnerships with poor people and their governments, the kind that will put us out of the aid business for good. But make no mistake: this one little reform will make a big difference for that small business in Kenya that gets the USAID contract, and can hire more Kenyans, who can send their kids to school. Who knows, maybe one of those kids will grow up to be the next Wangari Maathai or John Githongo.


Stuck in the bottom of your stocking

Monday, January 9th, 2012
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This blog post was written by MFAN Partner Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America. The post originally appeared on Oxfam America’s Politics of Poverty blog.

Most people probably weren’t paying attention to the Washington Post business page on Dec 25. (Myself, I was trying to corral two toddlers and navigate a sea of legos and torn paper). But for people in poor countries who are trying to lead their societies out of poverty, Christmas day brought good news: USAID is changing the way it works to get closer to the people it’s trying to help.

Since Administrator Rajiv Shah came on board, USAID has been trying to rebuild itself so it can build stronger partnerships with poor countries and their people. It’s based in the reality of good development, which is that development isn’t something done by USAID—development is done by poor people and poor countries themselves. In order to be a better partner, USAID needs to get closer to poor people to know better what they actually need and want. That means having more USAID people talking and working directly with people in poor countries.

Dy Yong keeps the books for the rice Bank Committee so that everybody can see how it run and maintained at the Rice cooperative in Takom village, Battambang. The rice store committee has many members and they introduce villagers to the principles of trading rice to give them security at a much reduced rate than the market offers. Photo by Jim Holmes/Oxfam

This isn’t a new idea; it’s called “partnership,” and the hard-working people at USAID have been trying to do it since the agency was created 50 years ago—with varying degrees of success. The problem is that budget cuts in the 90’s gutted the agency’s ability to do this well. Budget cutters defined “efficiency” as more dollars managed by fewer people, rather than judging the depth and effectiveness of USAID’s partnerships. As a result, things deteriorated to the point where USAID contracting officers were each managing five times the amount of money that federal guidelines said they should. By necessity, USAID’s business model was reduced to “shoveling money out the door” rather than getting to know countries, communities, leaders, and their needs.

Increasingly, to manage this, USAID starting relying on “intermediaries”; often well-meaning partners like big NGOs and contractors that could manage the money for them. US-based NGOs and contractors each have distinct roles and contributions to make to development. But in this case, the way they were used was both a substitute for USAID expanding its own knowledge and expertise, as well as an impediment to change leaders in poor countries being able to tell the US government what they really needed.

Administrator Shah is trying to change that. The Dec 25 Washington Post article unveiled his effort to get USAID back to a better business model, by cutting out the middlemen and putting more emphasis on building relationships directly with the people who are making development happen in their own countries. These are exactly the kind of people that the United States wants on our side: not because of charity or because they necessarily like us, but because they want the same things we do: a world that can fight back against problems like poverty, injustice, and disease.

These reforms have a rather bureaucratic sounding name: “Implementation and Procurement Reform.” But what they mean in practice is that USAID is making an effort to get back on the ground to work more closely with the people it’s trying to help. That means better value for American taxpayers, more power for change leaders in poor countries, and ultimately better progress in the fight against poverty.

It All Starts with Training: New CAP Report Calls for Better Crisis Prevention Training

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011
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Last week the Center for American Progress (CAP) published a report, “It All Starts with Training: Crisis Prevention and U.S. Foreign Affairs Agencies,” that explores the need for improved training courses and professional development opportunities at core U.S. foreign affairs agencies. John Norris, Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at CAP, Abigail Long, associate for policy and government relations at Humanity United, Sarah Margon, Associate Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at CAP and David Abramowitz, vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United all contributed to the report. The paper states that “without enhanced training, diplomats will continue to lack the broad range of tools they need to deal with the many complicated and challenging global issues they regularly encounter whether on the ground or back in Washington.” The goal is with improved training, diplomats and development experts can advance democracy, stimulate economic growth, and strengthen the rule of law prior to a possible emerging conflict that could end with direct military combat.

The Obama Administration has launched a series of reviews on how U.S. embassies and development offices operate. One such review, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), concluded that the U.S. is not adequate in preventing and managing crises. A few statistics included in the QDDR underscore how important conflict prevention is to the U.S.: close to 60 percent of State and USAID’s foreign assistance goes to 50 countries that are in the midst of, recovering from, or trying to prevent conflict or state failure; more than 25 percent of State and USAID’s personnel serve in the 30 countries classified as highest risk for conflict and instability; and more than 2,000 civilian personnel are currently deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. In part to turn the system around, the QDDR established an Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights and the New Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations (COS) to “lead, coordinate, and institutionalize U.S. government civilian capacity to prevent or prepare for post-conflict situations and to help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife.”

As the authors note, looking at statistics from similar reports, it seems as though crisis prevention is a priority for the U.S. government. However, the findings from these reports indicate that significant institutional and cultural change is needed in order for the President’s rhetoric to become reality.

CAP’s key recommendations to improve crisis prevention training include:

  • Tying promotions directly to conflict prevention training;
  • Giving post bid preference to those Foreign Service officers who complete a certified core curriculum in conflict prevention training;
  • Requiring all incoming State and USAID officers to take a basic course on conflict prevention;
  • Providing for additional training for Foreign Service officers deploying to a conflict-prone country;
  • Requiring Foreign Service officers to complete a year of advanced training to be eligible for promotion to Senior Foreign Service;
  • Establishing the personnel capacity for civilian international affairs agencies to do better training;
  • Creating a new cone within the Foreign Service dedicated to conflict prevention; and
  • Synchronizing USAID’s operating expenses with its program budget.

To download a PDF of the report, click here.


Mark Your Calendars — Week of December 19, 2011

Thursday, December 15th, 2011
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Every Thursday, MFAN will post a list of upcoming events for the following week. For more information about each event and to RSVP, click on the links below. If your organization is hosting an event next week and you don’t see yourself on the list, please email

See below for a list of MFAN Partner events during the week of December 19, 2011:




Save the Children Releases Report, Afghanistan in Transition

Monday, December 12th, 2011
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MFAN Partner Save the Children has released a report, Afghanistan in Transition, calling for attention to development and governance during the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops, and outlaying recommendations to development and government actors.

As the United States begins to draw down its efforts in Afghanistan – a situation not unlike some 20 years ago – the sustainability of the transition will depend on careful focus and continued development efforts. Afghanistan has received large portions of U.S. aid and made significant development gains over the last decade, but this progress will be at risk if continued diligence is not given.

The report details much of Afghanistan’s progress in sectors such as health, nutrition and food security, education, child protection and child rights, and humanitarian issues. However, achievements in these sectors are only relative, and even these gains are at significant risk of being lost. As an example, Afghanistan has witnessed a 26 percent reduction in its child mortality, yet it still retains one of the world’s worst child mortality rates. Solutions, such as training for Community Health Workers and midwives, have been only marginally addressed. Save argues that greater focus is needed in all sectors where relative achievements show promise but lack necessary emphasis and funds.

Afghanistan in Transition goes further to outline the reasons why development progress has been slow in Afghanistan. First is the issue of poor governance, including cases of corruption and a lack of institutional capacity. This leads to bottlenecking and waste of aid dollars, as well as the misalignment of development projects.  Moreover, a relatively weak civil society and a lack of transparency and accountability in governance add to this deficit.

Afghanistan is a fragile state in the midst of conflict, further complicating its development progress. Under the discretion of national security interests, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) targets areas of strategic importance rather than responding to direct provincial needs. As the report notes, “the aim of ‘winning hearts and minds’ has had the effect of penalizing the ‘peaceful but poor’ provinces.” For example, 77 percent of aid efforts are directed to southern and eastern regions of military interest, drawing resources away from peaceful provinces where the poverty rates are far higher.  Questions of sustainability are also rising, as 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is comprised of aid money.

In the end, Afghanistan in Transition’s recommendations include:

  • Long-term investments to ensure sustainability and effectiveness of aid programs;
  • Strengthened mutual accountability, by increasing transparency and improving results measurement;
  • Investment in improved data and statistical capacity through concerted efforts;
  • A focus on children; over half of Afghanistan’s population is comprised of children, and issues such as health, education, and protection will require donor involvement; and
  • Prioritization of funding for needs-based areas. Military, political, or security interests cannot divert efforts for sustainable development.