Reform with a Bite at USAID

January 19, 2011 By Joel Paque

“The Future of American prosperity resides on the prosperity in the developing world.” With these words USAID Administrator Raj Shah underscored the importance of elevating development within U.S. foreign policy at a speech today for the Center for Global Development. Shah’s speech demonstrated that real reforms are already underway at USAID, making U.S. assistance more accountable and transparent. He highlighted USAID Forward, a series of reforms in areas such as procurement and talent management that he said are already leading to better development practice.  “Thanks to those reforms,” he said, “our agency is fundamentally changing, becoming more efficient, more effective and more business-like, freeing our talented staff to deliver real results.”

“I want the American taxpayer to know that every dollar they invest in USAID is being invested in the smartest, most efficient, and most transparent way possible,” Shah said, citing a number of areas where savings are already being achieved.  Budget authority for USAID has led to significant savings by allowing it to reallocate resources around the globe as development needs change.  Senior level positions abroad have been restructured to concentrate on key priority areas, and cost savings have been found in re-evaluating current business practices, from leases to information technology.  By allowing USAID greater control over its own budget, the Agency predicts it can save $100’s of millions of dollars over the next five years.

Acknowledging the positive role development contractors play in implementing USAID programs around the world, Shah also outlined reforms intended to ensure there is adequate oversight over U.S. government projects and that funds are spent efficiently.  He stressed the new USAID evaluation policy, focused on outcomes, not outputs, which will help guide funding and programmatic decisions in the future.

Reforming development is also a critical part of our national security and economic prosperity, Shah stressed.  He cited the importance of developing new markets for U.S. goods, highlighting the story of a small manufacturer from Georgia that produces solar powered pumps for irrigation and has grown from a small company to now operating two manufacturing sites in the U.S. to service the demand for its products from India.

Shah also outlined the important role development plays in weak and fragile states. USAID is working side-by-side with the military in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and will soon release its first ever policy on the role of development assistance in countering violent extremism and insurgency. However, USAID’s foremost job in promoting national security is also in “preventing conflict in the first place,” in places such as Sudan where USAID has been working to ensure the recent independence referendum took place peacefully and it does not descend again into large scale violence.

Shah also called for the resources necessary to fully implement the changes needed to achieve mission success: “Now is the time to invest in USAID’s capabilities, so we see the day when our assistance is no longer necessary.”  He summed up his hope these reforms already underway will demonstrate to the new Congress that “our assistance is not just from the American people, it’s also for the American people.”