A New USAID Strategy: Climate Change and Development

January 12, 2012
USAID’s Policy, Planning and Learning Bureau released a new strategy today, this one on climate change.  The latest strategy adds to a growing list of policy guidelines that you can find here. Having no real expertise in climate change, I will look to others for a more substantive analysis on whether the strategy reflects the right objectives and the best means to achieve them.  (Stay tuned for a piece here by CGD climate expert David Wheeler who has written extensively on climate change issues.) My view on any new strategy focuses on the intersection of policy, process, and politics.  Get any one of those wrong, and the best of intentions can be doomed for failure. So here’s what I think the climate change team got right:
  • The strategy actually includes objectives.   Now some may say they are a tad nebulous and therefore difficult to measure, or conversely, easy to defend.  But it’s a good thing to establish the habit of thinking about goals, and….
  • How to achieve the objectives is also outlined.  Basically, the game plan is to focus on mitigation (via clean energy and sustainable landscapes), and adaptation, while integrating climate change designs into Agency-wide programming.  This last objective may be the most important one.
  • It recognizes that in times of budget austerity, the Agency cannot do everything everywhere.  The call for selectivity is accompanied by criteria in choosing which activities to do where.
  • It includes an implementation plan that even identifies countries, although the list of recipients reflects 2011 programming.   However, if the same criteria for country selectivity are used in the 2012-2015 period covered by the strategy document, it is likely the list will remain pretty constant.
And now for the politics… First there is the issue of how to handle declining aid budgets when the politics of aid continue to feed the “do everything everywhere” monster.  The politics of declining budgets has led many big donors to reduce or cut all aid to wealthier countries.  Many of the countries identified in the climate change strategy are indeed in the middle income category.  My colleagues Amanda Glassman and Andy Sumner make the argument that middle income countries include the majority of the world’s most impoverished, and should not be wholesale abandoned. The issue of climate change demonstrates that donors cannot just walk away from middle income countries.  The very fact that their economies are growing at healthy annual rates means that they are increasing their carbon emissions.  Without the nudge of international donors to reform policies and incentivize cleaner technologies, many of these countries would be reluctant to invest their own resources. Second, at a time when some American politicians want to denigrate the science of climate change rather than continue to inquire as to its causes and consequences, USAID is not shirking the issue by instead, for example, calling for an “environmental” strategy with the hopes that its reception on the Hill will be friendlier.  The strategy does finally put some legs under the administration’s Global Climate Change Initiative, but Hill receptivity could range from lukewarm to hostile – not good when the international affairs budget will be under continuing budget pressures. Given these pressures, the goal to integrate climate change knowledge into the design of Agency-wide development programs may be the most effective and efficient way to bring about positive change.  That approach doesn’t lend itself to high-profile presidential initiatives, but perhaps klieg lights are not needed in order for an approach to be effective.


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.