Is USAID broken?

By Felix Salmon
April 29, 2010
My panel at the Milken conference was pretty sparsely attended, for good reason: not only was it up against comic-book superheroes, but it was also up against a real-life superhero, Clare Lockhart, who was on the Expeditionary Economics panel and who has some trenchant and compelling ideas about how to fix failed states. I was hoping to grab her for a quick video interview afterwards, but it was not to be, so in her stead I've been reading Chris Blattman, who has a couple of blog posts up which are very much in line with her thinking.

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My panel at the Milken conference was pretty sparsely attended, for good reason: not only was it up against comic-book superheroes, but it was also up against a real-life superhero, Clare Lockhart, who was on the Expeditionary Economics panel and who has some trenchant and compelling ideas about how to fix failed states. I was hoping to grab her for a quick video interview afterwards, but it was not to be, so in her stead I’ve been reading Chris Blattman, who has a couple of blog posts up which are very much in line with her thinking.

Chris has just returned from an unidentified small poor country, where he met the new finance minister, who got some very good advice. Donors will come, he said, and they will make three big mistakes: they will have high standards, with no tolerance for graft or pork; they will prioritize education, health and infrastructure over security and justice; and they will use NGOs to deliver aid.

Read Chris’s blog for why all of these are bad ideas in the world’s poorest countries, but certainly I’ve heard Lockhart explain things like the way in which NGOs undermine a country’s bureaucracy by stealing away its brightest, foreign-educated technocrats.

Interestingly, although Lockhart’s ideas are treated with a lot of respect in the Army, that doesn’t seem to be the case at USAID, which was generally considered a non-starter for any country interested in this kind of institution-building approach. Why? Blattman blames Congress:

The problem, however, might not be with USAID. USAID springs from Congress, a Congress that uses its charity as an instrument of foreign policy, has little belief in country ownership, and no real stake in actual development. Congress just might be getting the aid agency it deserves.

I don’t have the solution to this problem. I can barely organize my sock drawer. But we live in a world where the poorest government can safely say the US is irrelevant to its development strategy, and a leading member of the Senate can speculate in all seriousness that the main US aid agency should be wound up. This should deeply alarm us.

One of the few genuinely strong areas of the Bush administration was in the area of foreign aid and development, but it’s understandable that the Obama administration hasn’t made it a priority, and clearly there’s still a lot of work to be done to maximize the efficacy of U.S. aid in general and USAID in particular. Maybe they could start by talking to the Army a bit more.

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One comment so far

Sorry, Felix, but I would’ve attended the superhero panel too.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive
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