3 Things the Next USAID Administrator Should Focus On

February 19, 2015

Dr. Raj Shah has officially left the building.  USAID’s headquarters in the Ronald Reagan building that is.  He has a long list of accomplishments to take with him.  Helping launch and oversee two presidential initiatives (Feed the Future and Power Africa), implementing organizational reforms (USAID Forward), and establishing close working relationships with Congress in an otherwise toxic environment.  There is no doubt that Raj Shah has left USAID in a much stronger position than he found it five years ago.  Now the questions will intensify about who should take his place.  My colleague, Casey Dunning, outlined several characteristics that President Obama should be looking for.  But, what should the next USAID Administrator focus on? 

There are three specific areas that warrant immediate attention and action.  All of them have witnessed some progress in recent years, but much work remains.  They also would contribute to better results, greater accountability, and deeper partnerships with developing countries.  In short, they represent an ambitious aid reform agenda for the final two years of the Obama Administration and the makings of a meaningful legacy for the next USAID Administrator.

  1. Develop a Standard Metric for Evaluating Project Performance.  USAID has aggressively pushed for more and better evaluations, and then made these evaluations publicly available.  As my CGD colleagues, Casey Dunning and Rob Morello, have pointed out, USAID should build upon this impressive progress by establishing a universal rating system for all projects.  These systems are common at the multilateral development banks and many bilateral aid agencies.  By illustration, the World Bank assigns an outcome rating to every project, ranging from “highly satisfactory” to “highly unsatisfactory.”  This information, which is supplemented by more detailed and customized project evaluations, allows management to compare portfolio-level performance and make adjustments to where the World Bank is investing its scarce resources.  It’s startling that USAID doesn’t have such a system in place.  The next USAID Administrator can and should fix that.

  2. Engage and Reflect Local Views Throughout the Project Cycle.  USAID needs to better engage with its intended beneficiaries on the ground, alongside regular engagement with partner governments.  There are baby steps in some areas, such as USAID using local organizations to execute projects.  That’s a great start.  However, there also is a critical need for representative local input when determining priorities, developing projects, and monitoring whether goals have been achieved.  [Just to be clear, this means the rigorous collection of input from a sample that is statistically representative of the broader population, which USAID is not doing now.]  Americans don’t like it when Washington tries to set their priorities.  Why should people in Africa or Latin America be any different?  Ordinary people want a voice in, and a greater sense of ownership over, how USAID and other development agencies impact their lives.  And then hold all actors accountable afterwards.  Flexible, low-cost techniques – such as mobile phone-based surveys – can be a powerful tool for addressing this gap in representative, real-time input.

  3. Better Collect and Publish Where All of the Money is Going.  USAID is the biggest bilateral aid agency in the world and commits almost $20 billion a year in development funding.  Yet, USAID regularly performs poorly compared to its peers in terms of publishing where all that money is going.  If USAID wants to be a premier development agency, then it must dramatically improve its aid transparency.  It can start by publishing timely, comprehensive, accurate, and geo-coded data to the global repository for foreign assistance information, the IATI registry.  The Agency has committed to achieve this by end-2015, but it will only happen with a big push from the top. 

None of these reforms will be quick and easy fixes.  Nothing meaningful ever is.  Yet, there is an opportunity for real progress.  There is widespread support for these types of measures within the US-based development community, including the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and Publish What You Fund.  And who knows, following Raj Shah’s constructive engagement with Congress, these reforms could find support on Capital Hill too. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.