Spotlight: Partnerships, Technology, and Aid Effectiveness

November 20, 2012 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

When trying to explain recent reforms in development, you occasionally hear, “this is not your grandfather’s USAID.”  The changes in USAID Forward driven by the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development– the first of its kind by a U.S. administration– and the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) are part of a broader effort to change how the U.S. government does development.  These initiatives – and others – are geared towards making foreign assistance more accountable and transparent, expanding public-private partnerships, and as is the case with USAID’s latest program, harnessing “the intellectual power of great American and international academic institutions.”

USAID recently launched the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), a groundbreaking partnership with an Ugandan university and six of America’s top universities – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California at Berkeley, Michigan State University, Duke University, Texas A&M University, and The College of William & Mary.

Speaking from the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department to an audience of university students, faculty, development specialists, and scientists, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said HESN is the next step in USAID’s “special focus on science and technology” and that this initiative will “expand our portfolio of partners in the private sector, in local NGOs, and of course in the academic and research community.”

So, what is HESN? Using UC Berkeley’s Blum Center as a model, USAID has assembled a “constellation of seven Development Labs” that will compile, incubate, test, analyze, and ultimately generate new ideas and solutions to development challenges.  In creating HESN, USAID took notes from the Defense Department’s principle agency for “high-payoff research, development and demonstration of new technologies and systems,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Alex Dehgan, USAID’s Science and Technology Adviser (the first full-time one in 20 years), says HESN is “USAID trying to build a DARPA for development.”

Through HESN, USAID will provide a total of $130 million, spread out among the seven universities over five years, with each university required to match 60% of the grant.  Why these seven universities? Back in February, USAID received more than 500 proposals.  The final seven were chosen in large part because of the contributions they were already making in development.

For example, William and Mary has been working since 2009 with Brigham Young University (BYU) and Development Gateway, a non-profit organization focusing on information solutions for development,  on an effort to make global aid data more transparent and accessible.  AidData, as it’s called, is a database that provides detailed information about aid allocation and foreign assistance projects.

William and Mary Chancellor and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says this type of research is “fundamentally improving the way the U.S. development and defense communities track the distribution and impact of their overseas investments.”  The new HESN-funded AidData Center for Development Policy will bring also bring in new partners: ESRI, a California-based geographical information systems company, and The University of Texas at Austin.

One university grant will effectually connect USAID to three universities, one NGO, and one company.  USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah remarked that these types of partnerships will allow the Agency to “recapture the legacy of science, technology, and innovation as core drivers of development – as well as inspire and support the next generation of development leaders.”

In addition, HESN is bringing together development projects aimed at: improving global health outcomes though social entrepreneurship at Duke University;  supporting local innovation and helping donors and policy-makers identify and invest in better technological solutions to development challenges at MIT; developing locally-appropriate, scalable solutions to global hunger and health at Michigan State; designing technologies for development that are affordable and sustainable at UC Berkeley; studying the intersection between poverty, conflict, and food insecurity at Texas A&M; helping African communities respond to natural and political stresses at Makerere University in Uganda.

HESN uses grant money to bridge the gap between the technologies developed by the private sector, philanthropy, and academia and the U.S. government’s capacity to deliver effective development.  It also represents the latest in a series of steps USAID and the State Department have taken to make foreign assistance data available to the public.