Power Play: USAID's Administrator Makes the Case for Global Engagement, More Focus on Effectiveness

USAID Administrator Samantha Power appeared before House and Senate authorizing committees late last week to discuss the agency’s FY22 budget. Ongoing US efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large in both hearings, but Administrator Power fielded questions about USAID’s response to a wide range of other global challenges, the effectiveness of US foreign aid writ large, a host of country-specific issues, and key policy priorities. 

It wasn’t surprising to hear Administrator Power make a case for strong US global engagement—including robust aid investments and continued commitment to humanitarian response. But she also demonstrated—in a number of important ways—a clear-eyed focus on development effectiveness. Below we highlight several issues we were glad to see receive attention.  

Locally led development  

As part of her opening statement, Administrator Power spoke to USAID’s plans to redouble its efforts to expand and improve its work with local partners. She summed up the rationale for more local engagement well, noting that the agency’s programming benefits from “local organizations that have the insights to develop tailored solutions and the credibility to implement them.”  

Promoting greater local ownership and leadership in US-supported development investments certainly isn’t a new goal. Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, USAID spearheaded initiatives to increase local partnerships. Power referred to the New Partnerships Initiative—launched under former Administrator Mark Green—which seeks to increase agency engagement with new and underutilized partners, and Local Works, a small pool of flexible funding USAID missions can use to engage local actors in a variety of ways. 
Shifting toward more local partnerships has required new ways of working for the agency, including new approaches to weighing tradeoffs and risks, potentially a new skillset for agency staff, and a change to staff incentives that reflect these new priorities. It may also require an increase in the agency’s workforce, especially in the near-term. (Power noted that USAID’s contracting officers already manage larger portfolios than their counterparts in other aid agencies.) Driving this agenda forward has been a slow process and will necessitate continued high-level political leadership and a commitment of appropriate resources. It was encouraging to hear Power pledge to champion further progress.

Of course, to succeed, USAID will need Congress on board. With just five percent of USAID funds obligated to local organizations, USAID has plenty of room to expand its partner base. But to truly emphasize locally led development, it will also be important to expand beyond the focus on local actors as implementing partners. Local actors must also have the opportunity to help set priorities, weigh in on program selection and design, and even determine who implements. To move in that direction, USAID itself would need to have more budgetary flexibility, a point raised in both hearings.  

Diversity, equity, and inclusion at USAID 

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) asked Administrator Power about USAID’s efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion—including within its own workforce (in line with President Biden’s government-wide executive order). Chairman Meeks noted a troubling conclusion from last year’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which found that between 2002-2018, racial and ethnic minorities in USAID’s Civil Service were 31 percent to 41 percent less likely to be promoted than their white peers. Last summer, CGD co-hosted an event with Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) to discuss the findings of the GAO report, staff experiences, and recent actions USAID has taken to address these disparities and other concerns. USAID has begun active efforts to build a diverse cohort of development professionals, but this is just one element of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. Our CGD colleagues and friends from WCAPS recapped a discussion that took place earlier this year on the importance of crafting inclusive development policy to achieving sustainable results—whether in combating poverty or reducing conflict—and key approaches to help ensure inclusivity is appropriately prioritized. 

To her credit, in response to the chairman’s questions, Power acknowledged the work ahead and pointed to the agency’s new DEI strategic plan, which she signed on her first day in office. She also previewed plans to hire a full-time coordinator for DEI—who will sit in USAID’s front office and oversee day-to-day efforts at the agency. 

Acting on evidence 

Power continued to assert her commitment to ensuring USAID’s programming is guided by evidence. In response to a line of questioning from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) about the effectiveness of certain aid programs, Power stated that one of her priorities is to enhance the rigor of USAID’s evaluations. This is great news. USAID has a top notch evaluation policy but its implementation has shown room for improvement. High-level political support will be instrumental to advancing evaluation quality at USAID.  We hope Power will also take action within the agency to help ensure the programing it supports is based on evidence, including—but not limited to—the agency’s own evaluations.  

It was also helpful for Power to articulate the need to disaggregate the purpose of aid when drawing conclusions about its effectiveness. USAID has always had to grapple with a dual mandate: to (actually) achieve development outcomes and to fulfill US foreign policy objectives dressed up in the guise of development programming. We would argue it is inappropriate—and largely unfair—to judge the effectiveness of USAID programs based on their development results when development wasn’t the primary objective. Increased clarity around underlying goals will be a key part of an honest conversation about USAID’s results. 

We were also pleased to hear Power’s praise for Development Innovation Ventures (DIV). As Power pointed out, DIV yielded $17 in social benefit for each $1 invested across its early portfolio. Her interest in determining how USAID can inject DIV-like evidence-based innovation across the agency—is one we share. DIV’s small size has its benefits, but the initiative has had a fairly limited reach to missions, even though DIV’s model of pilot, test, and scale is exactly the evidence-informed approach the agency should employ across its programing more broadly.  

Under the last administration’s restructuring effort, DIV was moved from the now defunct Global Development Lab to the new Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation (DDI). In theory, this move could expand ties with country teams and help extend DIV-like approaches across the agency. On the other hand, we share the concerns—voiced by Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX)—that moving DIV to DDI risks burying rather than elevating evidence-based innovation. Power’s expression of support was an important signal that DIV won’t get lost in the (re)shuffle.  

Emphasis on violence prevention 

Questions about conflict and fragility were woven throughout both hearings. From the conflict in Ethiopia to concerns about the rise of the Taliban post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the assassination of Haiti’s president to backsliding in Lebanon—and with growing authoritarianism across the globe—addressing fragility will be at the center of much of USAID’s work.  

The Biden-Harris administration has requested full funding of the Global Fragility Act, which aims to make US aid to fragile states more effective with the help of targeted strategies and dedicated resources focused on violence prevention rather than just response. But Power was right to note that key opportunities to prevent violence can emerge quickly with narrow windows of opportunity and that, outside of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, the agency has little flexibility to shift or reprogram money to respond in a timely way.  

We were also pleased to hear Power highlight the increased request in funding for democracy, rights, and governance (DRG). DRG issues have often been underfunded and given short shrift, even within their own bureaus, despite the fact that attention to things like rule of law, anticorruption, and respect for human rights are fundamental to any effective fragility strategy. Prevention, as Power noted (with a specific reference to atrocity prevention but it could apply more broadly), is cross-sectoral and not simply the domain of small sub-group of governance staff. This recognition lays the foundation for the administration to better integrate governance across agencies and sectors— cross-walking sectoral interventions with their implications for fragility.  

Fighting energy poverty and mainstreaming climate 

There were several questions about USAID’s climate strategy, including from Representative Brad Schneider (D-IL), who inquired about how to ensure assistance reflects growing needs. Power acknowledged that while agriculture and food security have been at the forefront of the agency’s climate efforts to date, the agency, under her leadership, will ensure that climate change considerations factor into all USAID programming across sectors. We recently outlined some questions the agency will need to grapple with as it seeks to do just that. 

A couple of lawmakers weighed in on the value of Power Africa—the USAID-led multi-agency initiative that looks to extend access to reliable, affordable electricity in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, brokering deals with the private sector. Fittingly, Power voiced her support for Power Africa and US efforts to address energy poverty more broadly. But lawmakers expressed different views when it came to the mix of energy sources that should be in play. Since it was launched by President Obama, renewable energy development has been central to Power Africa. But new ambitions to address the climate crisis and a focus on transitioning from fossil fuels will demand strategic thinking about the extent to which there may be tradeoffs. In particular, the agency will need to consider the ramifications of restricting already limited energy options for the world’s lowest income countries and how dedicating a larger share of aid to fossil fuel emissions reduction could shift funds away from other development goals.  

During last week’s hearings, lawmakers demonstrated strong interest in USAID’s work while their questions underscored the many challenges facing the agency. It’s still relatively early in Power’s tenure at USAID, but we’re encouraged that the administrator continues to signal her commitment to strengthening the agency’s development impact.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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