Observers of U.S. foreign assistance lament the decline of USAID resources, staff and expertise. Many old hands remember the days when it was the global leader in development. Yet, calls to rebuild USAID are everywhere today, from the White House to the State Department to Capitol Hill. President Obama and Secretary Clinton vowed to make USAID the world’s premier development agency and legislation on the Hill clearly seeks to elevate not just development but USAID as well.

Despite some healthy skepticism about whether and how those promises are being fulfilled, a closer look inside the agency suggests some positive changes are underway.

While the interagency process resulted in the Presidential Policy Directive on global development, it was a long-time in coming and leaves a limited amount of time to implement. Meanwhile, Administrator Shah has been taking concrete actions to revitalize USAID. Those changes are significant and could very well transform the agency and the way it does business making it an innovative and game-changing leader.

  • Procurement.  While this may not sound exciting, it goes to the core of trying to make aid more effective by changing the way assistance is delivered – who receives it and how it is used – and can strengthen partner country capacity, improve lasting development outcomes, and increase cooperation with other bilateral and multilateral donors.
  • Policy and Planning Returns.  The (re)creation of the Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau is a welcome and necessary component in elevating development.  Think of it as the control tower from which the agency can design country strategies and integrate  sectoral approaches around clearly defined objectives, such as food security, for example.
  • A Learning Culture.  With the (re)creation of the Office of Learning, Evaluation, and Research, the agency is prioritizing the role of monitoring and evaluation in evidence-based decision making that should affect policy, performance and the allocation of resources.  In short, the agency is setting itself up to learn what works, what doesn’t, and make adjustments in policy and programming accordingly.
  • A Food Security Bureau.  Achieving global food security is more than about increasing farm yield; it must complement and leverage other sector and agency investments.  Feed the Future is a prominent administration initiative.  Creating a bureau to oversee and coordinate all the various aspects of food security is smart.  But as CGD president Nancy Birdsall has said, it would be even smarter if the administration put Raj Shah and USAID in charge of the whole initiative.
  • Innovation.   The spirit of innovation is being revived through several initiatives that seek to harness science and technology: the new Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) awards; partnering with private research organizations; and designing a center for advanced research akin to DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
  • Transparency.  Increased transparency on aid data, such as found here is a good start and we hear there’s more to come soon.
  • Staffing.  USAID’s Development Leadership Initiative continues to fill some of the agency’s depleted staffing and expertise, and hiring senior staff to lead all of these efforts is critical.  While half of USAID’s Senate-confirmed positions are still missing, the agency reports that it has filled nearly all of the senior positions just below those Senate-confirmed posts

The Quality of Official Development Assistance (QuODA) project launched by CGD and Brookings gave mixed marks to USAID and many of the 152 aid agencies that were evaluated.  It’s worth bearing in mind that QuODA uses the most recent available data, but that data is from 2008.  I am eager to see how the above efforts may help shift USAID scores when the data catches up.  Perhaps some of the new initiatives begun by Shah can produce more timely and accurate data that could be used in tools like QuODA.

All this is to say, let’s give credit where credit is due.  Administrator Shah’s confirmation occurred in the midst of two formidable policy reviews.  It was followed within days by the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  Shah has had to build the ship at sea without a full crew amidst turbulent waters while naysayers expected rearranged deck chairs rather than transformative change.  There are still many challenges ahead, but Shah is taking important steps to steer the agency in the right direction.