Five Key Takeaways on the 2015 QDDR

May 1, 2015 By John Glenn

The recently released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) might be an instance when the process is as important as the product. The priorities in the report of preventing violent extremism, promoting democratic societies, advancing inclusive growth, and mitigating climate change dovetail with the National Security Strategy. Many of the proposals extend reforms already underway, rather than break new ground.

What may matter most is that the State Department and USAID have begun to institutionalize a regular strategic process of looking ahead and strengthening their capacity to deal with threats and opportunities. The report is best understood as the next step in reforms begun after 9/11 under Secretaries Powell, Rice, and Clinton, as well as initiatives like USAID Forward.

Here are my five takeaways:

Strengthening Economics in Diplomacy and Development: Secretary Kerry never misses an opportunity to say that foreign policy is economic policy, but many have been wondering how he would build on Secretary Clinton’s “Economic Statecraft” agenda. The QDDR points to recent progress, noting that USAID has more than doubled its economists in Washington and the field. The State Department has also nearly doubled the number of commercial and economic advocacy activities by embassy staff that led to the completion of deals for American businesses, settling of investment disputes, or changes in foreign government economic policy. It points out that exports by American businesses have reached an all-time high of over $2 trillion in 2014, supporting 11.7 million American jobs. In a competitive global economy with the fastest growing economies in the developing world, these steps and more like them make sense.

Commitment to New Partnerships: The QDDR reaffirms a new model built around partnerships with the private sector and NGOs to tackle global challenges that far exceed the capacity of government assistance alone. In 1960, official assistance made up 80% of all capital flows to the developing world, whereas today, official assistance is only about 10%, dwarfed by growing trade, private investment, and remittances. The State Department and USAID are increasingly partnering with businesses and humanitarian groups to leverage limited official resources and have an impact at the scale of the challenge. Initiatives like Power Africa and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition highlight the potential for significant results, even if we need to ensure that these partnerships are not just successful “one-offs” but built into the way that State and USAID do business.

Improving Transparency and Data: Transparency and data may sound technical, but they’re better understood as the keys to strengthening accountability. Many have struggled when it proved difficult to get an answer as to how much the United States was spending in a country or region, or what the results of a program actually were. The recent establishment of data analytic hubs at State and USAID to collect data to inform policy-making is an important step forward, as is making information on spending and results available to the American public and our partners overseas.

Investing in Civilian Capacity: While human resource reform may seem like inside baseball, it is critical to our capacity to deal with today’s threats and opportunities. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates liked to say there were more members of military bands than Foreign Service officers during his tenure. That may not be true any longer, but it puts a spotlight on the need for greater investments in the civilian side of national security. Beyond the personnel figures, if you’re in the military, one quarter of your time may be committed to training and professional development throughout your career. Foreign Service Officers are sometimes lucky to have had language training at the start of their careers. The QDDR recommends improving hiring mechanisms so that the needed people can be put in place more quickly, increasing investments in staff training, and encouraging inter-agency assignments.

What the QDDR Doesn’t Do: Close observers will remember the turf battles between State and USAID in the last QDDR, which are virtually absent from this document. Secretary Kerry reaffirmed that “development is a co-equal pillar of our foreign policy” at the roll-out event, joined by Acting USAID Administrator Lenhardt. In today’s world, this is progress, especially for those who are concerned about the continued recognition of the expertise and role of development in foreign policy.

Some questions will have to wait for another day, such as whether global health programs like PEPFAR make more sense at USAID or State or the relationship between the Office of Transition Initiatives at USAID and State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. Regardless, one of the most important results of this QDDR is to make it more likely that there will be another one in the next Administration.