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After nearly 18 months, thousands of man-hours, and a few interagency scuffles, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review was released on Wednesday.  First, hats off to the many State Department and USAID staff who toiled on the various working groups in addition to their regular work portfolios.  This was a huge undertaking for which staff should be applauded.

There are many things to like in this first QDDR.  That the document is clear on the types of threats the world faces and attempts to craft diplomatic and development responses to them is a welcome approach.  I am delighted that State recognizes that its ambassadors need to be sensitized to the role of development and will be trained and judged on their ability to navigate an interagency process.  The focus on improving hiring, staffing, and filling the mid-level gap through more flexible mechanisms is long overdue.  (The need for some of these fixes was previously known and State/USAID should have availed themselves of Congressional willingness to fix them in legislation that had been introduced back in 2009.)

Despite all the hard work, there are a number of issues that are being deferred for further study or where more clarity is needed.  Perhaps these represent areas where consensus could not be reached or where sufficient information was not available.  Nonetheless, they represent critical issues that will have to be tackled at some point soon.  As the authors duly note, the QDDR represents a process, meaning that once again this all comes down to implementation.  To the degree that implementation requires a culture change among the various agencies with an overseas presence, makes it even more difficult.

There are many more points in the document that will keep bloggers and policy wonks busy for weeks.  For now, here’s my list of unfinished business:

  • First and foremost, how will State and USAID grapple with managing more than two dozen government agencies engaged in some type of foreign assistance program?  While the QDDR’s focus was on the complementary roles of State and USAID, it still recognizes the coordination problems inherent in the Whole of Government (WoG) approach.  Designating the Ambassador as the CEO in charge of all the agencies at post and setting an example of how bureaucrats should play nice in the field will not address the infighting among agencies that will occur in Washington, where those fights are their most ferocious and have the greatest budgetary impact.
  • More clarity is needed on the division of labor between State and USAID with regard to fragile states and post-conflict, and post-disaster environments.  It appears the Office of Transition initiatives will remain at USAID (for now at least), but trying to designate USAID as lead in humanitarian response, and State in security and political crises, will probably be very difficult to operationalize as there are often similar needs in both.  One can imagine places where the humanitarian and security imperatives are equal.  And, it doesn’t address current account structures, such as the humanitarian accounts that State manages.
  • Will using other government agencies, rather than private contractors, really produce savings and provide for better government oversight?  Considering that some agencies have charged USAID up to 30% in overhead costs, it seems that contracts should not be automatically considered wasteful.
  • The transition of GHI to USAID remains unclear.  The target is to complete the transition by the end of 2012, but this is contingent on USAID meeting certain benchmarks.  The impression one gets is that the benchmarks are a list of imagined issues inserted to keep the Centers for Disease Control on board with the QDDR.
  • The QDDR designates USAID mission directors as the “primary development advisors to U.S. chiefs of mission,” but is a little fuzzy on the use of “foreign assistance coordinators” in some locations.
  • What comparative advantages does the United States really have?  The QDDR identifies: food security, global health, democracy and governance, climate change, sustainable economic growth, and humanitarian assistance.  Did we leave anything out?  Appears not.  Unless we really focus our resources and work with other donors, we will continue to spread ourselves too thin, and not produce the impacts we seek.

The QDDR represents an ambitious agenda filled with commitments to “do better.”  Operationalizing those commitments, and changing the culture required to do so will be difficult.  If State and USAID do not constructively engage with Congress, I can predict that many of the proposed changes will not see the light of day.