The Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine has often colored US development policy in an unfavorable way, seeming to inform decisions to withdraw from international dialogues on collective action challenges, restrict migration, and adopt a short-term, transactional view of foreign assistance. These actions have reflected poorly on the United States’ role as a global leader and have considerable implications for development outcomes. As the United States’ largest bilateral aid agency, USAID, which has had the role of implementing many of the administration’s foreign aid priorities, has not emerged unscathed.
Fortunately, thanks to the able leadership of Administrator Mark Green, USAID has avoided much of the harm many feared could befall it under an administration that has so often positioned itself at odds with a development agenda. When Green steps down from the job today, he will leave behind an agency that has largely continued to champion development, and which is pursuing a number of welcome reforms aimed at improving how the United States delivers foreign aid.
We reflect here on how Green’s leadership has protected, shaped, and reformed the agency—as well as where the administration’s broader agenda has left its mark— and outline the ways in which we hope Acting Administrator John Barsa (and any future USAID administrator) will take up the mantle.
Green’s key successes (amid persistent challenges)
Getting the main message right
Not for the first time, USAID has regularly found itself in an embattled position over the last three years. The administration has repeatedly sought dramatic cuts to the agency’s budget and—when Congress didn’t agree—attempted to rescind appropriated funds. Meanwhile, a hiring freeze placed on the agency in the first year of the administration put USAID at an early disadvantage in recruiting new talent. In the face of this skepticism about aid—and outright opposition to it—Administrator Green took neither a defensive nor acquiescent posture, but tactically created a proactive narrative and corresponding agenda for the agency.
His key initiative, the “Journey to Self-Reliance” (J2SR), centered on the idea that US international assistance should work toward the goal of eventually ending the need for aid (albeit, over the long term, in many cases). And it turned out to be the right message for the time. Despite some initial reservations about the (potentially patronizing) moniker and questions about the underlying objectives (is it code for cutting aid?)—the Journey to Self-Reliance found resonance both with some aid skeptics (at least to a degree) and aid advocates, with the latter keen to see USAID focus on building local capacity and getting results. And while previous USAID administrators tied their legacies to sector-based initiatives—several of which have found success, but all of which have limited the agency’s flexibility and contributed to “initiative fatigue”—Administrator Green intentionally avoided that, pinning his own legacy to improving how USAID delivers aid.
Of course, under the banner of J2SR, aspects of USAID’s messaging still reflect administration positions that run counter to good development policy. For instance, even as the agency has continued to support programming in environmental conservation and resilience, the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge climate change as a growing threat has precluded USAID from taking a leadership role in what is emerging as among the most fundamental development and humanitarian challenges. Likewise, broader administration policy has limited the agency’s ability to invest in family planning and sexual and reproductive health. Still, by framing the main message around self-reliance, it’s been possible for the agency to push back against some of the counter narratives that question the value of investing in foreign aid.
Meaningfully engaging with external stakeholders
A former member of Congress with over a decade of work in developing countries and on development issues, Administrator Green benefited from his insider status with two key stakeholder groups: Congress and the development community. He entered the position with a high baseline level of credibility among these actors, and, by prioritizing engagement with them, he continued to build their trust throughout his term. This is even more remarkable given the very low level of trust many within these same communities have had in the broader Trump administration’s intentions with respect to foreign aid.
Key examples of his successful engagement include mobilizing the agency’s private sector/civil society advisory group to help inform the creation of country roadmaps and establish principles for strategic transition, as well as completing a massive “listening tour” with dozens of implementing partners and other organizations to feed into their new acquisitions and assistance strategy. In testimony before Congress, he managed to walk a fine line to avoid appearing at odds with the administration, while simultaneously avoiding provoking lawmakers with a full-throated embrace of deep budget cuts. Green was also careful to avoid some of the more polarizing language and rhetoric of administration colleagues.
But it’s notable that even as Congress has rejected proposed cuts to USAID’s budget, it has tightened the reins on how funds are spent through a growing number of spending directives. Meanwhile, in the wake of each year’s budget request, USAID mission staff have still been forced to face a period of increased uncertainty around future resources. And in the Northern Triangle, the Trump administration’s desire to curb migration to the United States eclipsed development and humanitarian goals, leading to a relatively sudden halt on nearly all aid to the region.
Tackling the hard stuff
Green’s most enduring legacy may well be the biggest shakeup to USAID’s organizational structure in decades. Early in the Trump administration, the White House issued an executive order calling on all government agencies to identify ways to restructure and realign to promote efficiency. The action sparked initial fears that it would open the door to a USAID-State Department merger, something many development advocates have long argued against. Instead, Green used the opening to advance a thoughtful, staff-led, highly consultative process that informed a new organizational structure which seeks to address a number of staff- and stakeholder-identified inefficiencies and gaps. The reorganization includes, for example, merging food and non-food humanitarian response functions (an effort set in motion under the previous administration), aligning policy and budget functions, and elevating a focus on violence prevention.
Green’s team also dove headfirst into procurement reform. Procurement is central to USAID’s work, and reforms had been attempted before, including in the Obama administration. It has always proved somewhat fraught, however, quickly revealing a variety of obstacles and vested interests. Nevertheless, Green didn’t shy away from trying. And, in some areas, the agency was able to build upon the efforts—and lessons learned—of the previous administration, developing a promising new acquisitions and assistance strategy that—thanks to a good consultative process—was met with cautious optimism by stakeholders.
Allowing space to innovate and measure results
As regular readers will know, we’re big fans of evidence—generating it, publishing it, and especially using it to inform decisions. Carving out space for innovation and rigorously measuring results are critical parts of this equation. But, amid bitter fights over the fundamental value of aid, the space for accepting the higher risk that comes with innovation, and the potential for less than stellar results that accompanies rigorous evaluation, can quickly disappear. Still, USAID under Administrator Green continued to pursue workstreams that emphasized both.
In 2015, USAID launched a pioneering new effort to evaluate the cost effectiveness of some of its standard programs by comparing their impact-per-dollar against that of simply giving households cash. Though Green wasn’t in charge when the initiative began, he was at the helm when the first results came out—and they were a bit complicated for the agency since the study suggested the standard program it was evaluating didn’t have the impact hoped. It might have been tempting for Green to put a lid on the cash benchmarking effort—especially with a White House looking for any excuse to cut aid. To his great credit, he didn’t, allowing continued discussion of how cash benchmarking might be integrated more into program design.
Administrator Green also took advantage of an important opportunity to celebrate USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) when the initiative’s co-founder, Michael Kremer, was awarded the Nobel Prize alongside Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in recognition of their pioneering work on the kinds of evaluation DIV seeks to do. DIV actually has an incredible social rate of return, but its model—which involves providing grants to help pilot, test, and scale innovative solutions to development challenges—relies on a certain appetite for risk since innovations are, by definition, untested.
Key priorities for the next administrator
Managing the agency’s response to COVID-19
For some time, USAID’s top priority will be managing the response to COVID-19—both with respect to health needs amid the pandemic, and in supporting countries in the face of economic crisis. As if the pandemic and accompanying economic downturn weren’t enough, a costly domestic response could reduce political support for international investments.
A lesson that emerges from Green’s tenure is the need for the agency—perhaps more than ever—to maintain and foster relationships with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as with actors in the broader development community. The CARES Act provided some new funding and increased hiring flexibility to help facilitate the agency’s COVID-19 response, but USAID’s needs will evolve as the pandemic does (on a near daily basis), and as the global economic implications become apparent. Having clear lines of communication with Congress (and its allies—if sometimes critics—in the development and humanitarian community) can help give the agency a fighting chance at securing the continued support it will need to protect hard-won development gains. Furthermore, since USAID’s programming will need to adapt —quickly, repeatedly—as conditions evolve, the agency and Congress will need to be in lockstep about how reporting structures can allow agility and accountability simultaneously.
With COVID-19 taking center stage, business won’t be “as usual” for some time. But Administrator Green set the stage for progress in a number of key areas that we hope the agency’s leadership will work to move forward.
The Journey to Self-Reliance and its learning agenda
There’s a lot to like about J2SR, which aims to build local capacity, recognizes the importance of political will, considers the role of the private sector in solving development challenges, and orients around the country as a unit of analysis (rather than around sector level initiatives), to name a few. USAID has developed a robust learning agenda focused on J2SR that asks important questions and has the potential to inform broader discussions about development and aid effectiveness practices. It’s just now getting underway and will need continued support from the new administrator, as well as a solid plan for how the agency will prioritize questions and publish, synthesize, and communicate the results.
Implementing the reorganization
Green oversaw the major feat of planning—and getting congressional approval for most of—a massive organizational transformation. But, in many ways, USAID is only now approaching the starting line. The next year (and beyond) will be pivotal in establishing how the new organizational units will work to achieve the promise of providing better support to the field and facilitating better coordination among different units. There will need to be particular emphasis on how the new units—plus centers, hubs, and leadership councils—will work together and link with one another.
Operationalizing procurement reform
As we have noted, USAID’s 2018 Acquisitions and Assistance Strategy outlines sensible changes to the processes that undergird program design, the award process, and program management. While USAID has already started to put the new guidance into practice—with more co-creation, awards to new and underutilized partners, and more flexible design and adaptive management—the way USAID does business won’t change overnight.
Risk aversion and pressure to spend funds quickly (exacerbated by both COVID-19 response needs and the threat of rescission that looms each summer) contribute to staff preference for “tried-and-true” tools. Staff will need clear, consistent messaging from top agency leadership about the importance of continued progress, how to think about risk appetite, and how to weigh competing objectives.
Continuing to push the envelope on evidence-based aid
Political pressure can make prioritizing evidence and evaluation all the more challenging. The same is true—doubly so—when dealing with crisis response. Still, it will be important for USAID to keep its foot on the gas. The agency has continued to evaluate programs under its nearly 10-year old evaluation policy. And DIV continues to rigorously evaluate promising solutions to development challenges.
But there’s still room for USAID to improve both the quantity and quality of its evaluations, expand how it uses evidence in procurement and programming, and think more about cost effectiveness. Agency leadership will be important for encouraging continued investment and improvement. In addition, with the new reorganization, DIV will need a high-level champion to elevate its efforts from within its new bureau and better connect it to the work of the missions.
Pivoting toward prevention
At the end of last year, Congress passed the Global Fragility Act, directing USAID, along with the State Department, the Department of Defense, and other agencies, to come up with a strategy for better, more coordinated engagement in fragile states. A key objective of the act is to shift the US government from response mode after violence breaks out to a focus on preventing violence by tackling the underlying drivers of fragility.
For USAID, the bill came knocking on an open door, with the agency having recently created the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization to elevate prevention and better integrate the activities of the various prevention-focused offices previously spread throughout the agency. But bringing the new bureau to life and aligning efforts with interagency partners will require strong leadership who prioritizes its success.
Perhaps most fundamentally, any USAID administrator serving under the Trump administration will find themselves facing pressure from the White House to cut spending and/or use development aid in pursuit of specific, short-term, unrelated political objectives. Foreign aid is and has always been part of the US foreign policy toolkit and it’s expected that certain categories of aid will be used to advance strategic objectives. But, US aid also services development and humanitarian goals—because of their intrinsic value, their conveyance of American values, and their relationship to our own prosperity. The next administrator under this administration may find defending development to be an uphill battle, but it’s imperative that—like Mark Green—they commit to fight for it.