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The Obama administration’s new Feed the Future initiative is big—$3.5 billion over 3 years—and bold. It has been touted as “a new way of doing development” and aims to reach 40 million people, including 25 million children, in ten years in an effort to tackle chronic hunger and achieve global food security.  The objective and approach of the new initiative are laudable.  Indeed, it is hard to find fault within the new initiative; the challenge is what lies just beyond its reach: a U.S. global development strategy and a streamlined organizational structure that reduces sector and initiative-based fragmentation in our aid architecture.

There is a lot to like about Feed the Future (my colleague Steven Rosenzweig says more about this). The initiative recognizes global food security as a moral, economic and security issue that is intimately linked to the success of other investments in health, education and economic growth. The program injects substantial new resources, both money and expertise, to help developing countries improve agricultural productivity and increase incomes. It aims to leverage expertise from across U.S. government and multilateral agencies. It is working in partnership with congressional partners including Senators Lugar and Casey. And features of the initiative--country ownership, a focus on women and girls, measuring impact and smart communications—are widely regarded as ingredients of development success.

The problem is that this new way for development looks an awful like the old way:

  1. Who’s in charge? There is no one person in charge of the Feed the Future initiative. USAID Administrator Raj Shaj gave opening remarks at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ event last week, but is not necessarily the point person. Feed the Future is housed at the State Department and as far as I can tell the otherwise impressive Feed the Future website lacks staff or leadership information. Buried in the press releases you’ll find an explanation that Feed the Future will have two deputy coordinators: Ambassador Patricia Haslach will be the deputy coordinator for diplomacy and Ambassador William Garvelink will be the deputy coordinator for development. State Department’s Cheryl Mills said Secretary Clinton is ultimately accountable in partnership with Raj Shah and others, but that global food security coordinator has yet to be named.Having one point of contact matters not only for accountability to American taxpayers and Congress, but also for our partners in developing countries. If they don’t know who is in charge, whom do they call? It seems unlikely they call Hillary Clinton, and unmanageable to call Cheryl Mills, Raj Shah, Patricia Haslach, William Garvelink and the yet to be named coordinator. The bigger issue is how difficult it must be for our partners to keep track of all their development contacts: food security, global health, Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, investments in women and girls, climate programming, and so on.
  2. New administration priority and program; separate structure and funding. It is not unreasonable for each administration to distinguish their efforts, development or otherwise, with flagship initiatives. But the number of new initiatives—PEPFAR, MCC, President’s Malaria Initiative, the Global Health Initiative, Feed the Future, and so on—adds up, creating a patchwork of highly fragmented programs in different government agencies that can work at cross-purposes or duplicate efforts. The creation of initiatives like PEPFAR and MCC outside of USAID was seen as an effort to work around the dysfunction of USAID, instead of rebuilding its capacity. The Obama administration has vowed to make USAID the “premiere development agency in the world” but Feed the Future fits the old pattern.
  3. No clear coordination with other U.S. development policy tools. Increasing agricultural productivity and access to markets to improve incomes has clear connections with local, regional and international trade. I heard little about U.S. trade policies at the Feed the Future event last week, but clearly coordinated trade and food security policies matters for the success of the program. In contrast, investments in increasing the production of a certain crop or product through Feed the Future and then limiting the export of the same product with U.S. trade policies would be counterproductive. This of course requires broader coordination at the U.S. executive branch level—ideally through a U.S. global development strategy—and in Congress. Rep. McGovern acknowledged the challenges in Congress of multiple committees of jurisdiction over aid, trade, and related portfolios and wisely suggested congressional leadership pull together bipartisan meetings with all the committee chairs.

Again, these gaps don’t diminish the importance of global food security as part of our development objectives and our own moral, economic and national security interests. But they do signal that despite a growing consensus and unique window of opportunity to modernize U.S. foreign assistance, we’re still waiting. And while we wait, even the big, bold initiatives that have important objectives and intelligent approaches, end up looking a lot like business as usual. At a minimum, putting Raj Shah in charge of Feed the Future would be one way to have a clear point of contact, minimize new fragmentation, and signal that the administration is serious about building USAID’s capacity by letting it lead on a major new initiative (and one which Administrator Shah has specific experience and credibility). And we’ll keep hoping that the distinguishing feature of this administration’s development is still to come in the form of a U.S. global development strategy, a grand bargain with Congress on a new foreign assistance act, a streamlined and capable 21st century development agency, and increased funding and accountability for our development dollars.