Best practices in US global development should guide effort to redesign

The ability to identify best practices and adapt to changing realities is crucial for any organization or industry’s success. This is as true on Wall Street as it is in global development.

Right now in Washington, there’s growing interest in the redesign of U.S. foreign assistance architecture, and rightfully so, as it could in large part determine what the future of U.S. development looks like.

If the ultimate purpose of foreign assistance is to “end its need to exist,” as USAID’s new administrator Mark Green has articulated, then the Trump administration should start its redesign process by looking back on what we’ve learned from 60 years of U.S. global development. The new design should consider what is working across U.S. development efforts and build from there, scaling up best practices that have made our foreign assistance far more efficient and effective in recent years.

{mosads}The redesign must keep real people and real lives as the top priority to ensure the U.S. appropriately adopts the range of proven best practices. This is why more than 150 organizations and prominent individuals, have endorsed MFAN’s Guiding Principles for Effective U.S. Assistance. These principles provide a roadmap for a sound approach to reform and redesign that involves Congress as an equal partner and embraces the successes and incorporates any missteps we have learned to date.


Among the successes to look to is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), heralded as a unique model for foreign aid with an intentional focus on country ownership, transparency, and accountability embedded in its foundation.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the Congress that helped shape the creation of MCC in 2004 with strong bipartisan support. We engaged in an exercise to imagine a different way to fight global poverty while increasing inclusive economic growth. What resulted was an approach based on mutual priorities and mutual accountability. To be considered for an MCC grant, a country must pass a scorecard which examines commitment to good governance, economic freedom, and investments in their citizens. Working with qualified countries, MCC then helps identify major constraints to economic growth and plans and implements a targeted program—jointly, not one imposed from outside by the MCC.

MCC is often seen as a leader in evaluation and learning to improve its programs and practices. However, MCC does operate with some critical differences that must be considered. MCC is free from U.S. government earmarks and initiatives, which makes it easier to align with country priorities to tackle major constraints to economic growth.

Administrator Green is extremely well versed in MCC’s model and operations, having served on its board; his experience with MCC is reassuring to those of us who want to learn from its success. MCC’s best practices can clearly inform U.S. foreign assistance programs, but MCC was not built like USAID, nor does it have the breadth of mission to meet wide-ranging humanitarian needs across fragile and conflict-affected states. This brings me to USAID Forward, launched in 2010 as a sweeping internal reform effort with renewed focus on locally led development and evidence-based rigor in planning and programming. 

Prioritizing local stakeholders not only ensures buy-in, it also strengthens local institutions that will remain long after our aid dollars are gone. USAID has grown its partnerships with local organizations and doubled the percent of its funds that are channeled through local governments, civil society, and the private sector from 9.7 percent in Fiscal Year 2010 to 18.6 percent in Fiscal Year 2015. USAID has also helped leverage local resources to strengthen inclusive economic growth, called domestic resource mobilization (DRM). These are best practices that should continue to grow across USG development programs.

But to fully embrace best practices we must balance accountability with flexibility. Sustained solutions require the U.S. government and its partners to maintain the ability to harness and adapt to changing needs, resources, capabilities, and opportunities in a timely and coordinated way that supports and enables local leadership.

Success requires honest feedback and field-based evidence if we are to learn from both accomplishments and missteps. There are seeds of this learning culture; USAID has updated its evaluation policy, laying the groundwork for improved planning and programming within the agency and within the communities with which it works. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is telling that the U.S. State Department, and more recently the U.S. Defense Department, have both followed in USAID and MCC’s footsteps, establishing more rigorous evaluation policies to maximize impact.

Above all, we must not forget that American citizens have a stake in U.S. foreign assistance. Not only is it their tax dollars that support the programs, but long-term effectiveness improves U.S. national security and economic security, builds more robust trade partners, creates opportunities for private sector investment, and fosters more reliable allies in an increasingly precarious world. 

As USAID considers continued reforms this fall, I urge Administrator Green and his team to remember that harnessing and adopting best practices to changing realities will not only offer the best hope for those our aid seeks to lift up, but will also eventually fulfill the goal of ending the need for the existence of foreign assistance itself.

Jim Kolbe served in the U.S. House as an Arizona Republican from 1985-2007 and is now an honorary co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).

Tags Jim Kolbe Mark Green Millennium Challenge Corporation United States Agency for International Development United States foreign aid

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