Politics of Poverty

Gayle Smith’s Full Plate

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Gayle Smith, former NSC official, was confirmed as the new Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on Monday. Photo: Enough Project

Locking in reform, showing tangible results, and getting ahead of crises will keep USAID’s new administrator busy.

After a long wait, Gayle Smith was finally confirmed Monday as the new USAID Administrator by the Senate.  This means the United States will finally have a new top development official back at work in charge of USAID.  And none too soon.  Since the beginning of this century, American presidents have viewed the US development program as an indispensable tool of American foreign policy. And a vacancy at the top of USAID has meant America was punching far below its weight as the world confronts serious challenges.

Smith has three big tasks awaiting her at work this week.  First, she needs to cement the internal reforms at USAID that she has helped lead from the White House.  Second, she needs to lead the agency in showing the tangible development results of those reforms.  And finally, she needs to nimbly respond to a global environment where crisis management is becoming the new normal.  Like her predecessor Raj Shah, who came into office days before the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Smith will have a trial by fire.  But the comparison is instructive; like Shah, Smith can best succeed by focusing first on how the agency works.

Locking in Reforms

Heading up the world’s foremost development and humanitarian response agency would be a test for anyone.  But Smith is unquestionably well prepared for the job. Serving as President Obama’s Senior Development Advisor since he was first elected, Smith has been a lead author of the Obama Administration’s development approach, including holding the pen for the US government’s first ever presidential policy on global development (PPD-6).

One key change over the last few years at USAID has been the rebuilding of a deliberate program planning cycle at USAID.  In the aftermath of 9/11, USAID was too often used to simply funnel money out the door in response to crises.  Over the last several years, USAID has rebuilt many of the tools the agency needs to think deliberately about the future, rather than just react to emergencies.

Most importantly, the agency has strengthened its ability to allow local actors to lead their own development as well as lead their own disaster preparedness and response.  The path to a world beyond aid will require developing countries to take the reins; and USAID’s reforms have sought to give them a greater ability to set their own development priorities, by sharing information more freely and engaging in dialogue, joint analysis, and planning.  USAID is also working to nurture the next generation of development leadership in partner countries, by giving more prominent roles to local actors—including by funding them directly.  And finally, the agency is investing its funds to give partner countries the tools to generate their own resources, so they can move beyond aid.

These reforms have been challenged by entrenched interests inside and outside the US government who fear being squeezed by a model where USAID focuses more on partner country actors.  But the most creative contractors and NGOs are finding new ways to partner with local actors and make themselves part of the new, reformed future.  The longer USAID is able to stay the course, the more those who defend the status quo will find themselves left behind.  And in order to drive these changes, Smith needs to provide clear examples of how changes are unfolding in practice, to give courage to those partners betting on reform.  Smith also needs to announce the benchmark USAID will hold itself accountable to for its local partnership agenda, and set the agency on a course to get there.

Demonstrating Results

One powerful way to build momentum for reform is to demonstrate clearly what impact reforms can have on people’s lives.  The Obama Administration holds up its Feed the Future and Power Africa initiatives as models of how its reform agenda is working practice.  Impressive national impact statistics for Feed the Future show that the effort has inarguably helped many countries grow more food, feed more people, and lift more families out of poverty. USAID reports the effort has helped reduce childhood stunting and poverty in a number of focus countries.  But it remains to be seen if Feed the Future is flexible and local enough to reach the women and smallholder farmers it intends to help the most.

By contrast, Power Africa is a newer initiative; most of its reported outcomes are focused on the amount of investment attracted to the power sector in African countries, and plans to bring new energy generation projects online.  It remains to be seen whether these investments will translate to significant poverty reduction or sustained economic growth;  but Power Africa’s approach of working with diverse partners – both in-country and international – is the kind of flexible approach required of a modern development agency.

Getting ahead of the crisis curve

While these long-term reforms are critical, ultimately urgent external crises can sap the energy from Smith’s own agenda.  The global community is already struggling to manage the human cost of protracted crises like those in Syria and Yemen.  Meanwhile, El Niño is promising to stress food production in many places, compounding the pressure on countries and families already pressed by poverty and conflict.

This picture is daunting, but the changes made at USAID over the past few years have actually prepared the agency to meet these challenges. For example, USAID’s resilience policyis helping to build strategies to reduce chronic vulnerability across USAID programs.  The agency’s investments in disaster risk reduction have helped countries like El Salvador and Bangladesh significantly reduce the human and financial impact of extreme weather events.  In fact, the data that’s informing the advance planning for El Niño is from USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems network (FEWSnet), which was created by the agency 30 years ago.  These types of investments not only allow USAID to get ahead of crises and plan more deliberately for the future, but they allow countries and communities to do the same.

Nonetheless, USAID could be doing much more in this area.  With the World Humanitarian Summit planned for May of next year, Smith has a forum where she can lay out a vision for how USAID will partner with vulnerable communities to help them build the tools to get ahead of emergencies.  By strengthening leadership in partner countries, the United States can focus more of its energy and resources responding to the large, protracted challenges like Syria and Yemen.

Smith can share credit for many of the reforms that are already underway at USAID; and locking in these new tools and approaches will be her most important job.  It could be easy to get distracted by the day-to-day demands of the various crises the agency is confronting.  But USAID has been most successful when it gets ahead of the immediate and helps lead on innovative solutions for development problems.  It’s going to be hard to power through the distractions, but Smith has a reputation for doing so, so let’s hope this time is no different.

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