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USAID Administrator Mark Green regularly underscores his view that the goal of foreign assistance is to end its need to exist. Consistent with that objective, Green is spearheading a shift in how USAID works to better support partner countries’ ability to plan, implement, and finance their own development. The agency is calling this new country-centered approach the “Journey to Self-Reliance,” and—as we’ve discussed previously—it incorporates a number of worthwhile elements.

Last week, the agency came out with its first major, visible Journey to Self-Reliance product—a series of country “roadmaps” that use 17 indicators to plot low- and middle-income countries’ “commitment” to and “capacity” for self-reliance.

So what do the roadmaps tell us?

The roadmaps provide what I would describe as a decent cross-country snapshot. USAID did a lot of research to arrive at a largely defensible set of indicators. They’re not perfect, of course—they don’t measure development comprehensively or capture heterogeneity like social group inequality or variation in capacity/political will within and across ministries; they’re lagged and measured with error. But perfect measures don’t exist. Any set of indicators would come with similar limitations.

USAID acknowledges the indicators’ limitations and has done well to stress that the roadmaps are just one tool—an entry point into bigger conversations that will be informed by a wide range of other data and analyses. This makes the roadmaps low stakes—and appropriately so. When major resource allocation decisions are tied closely to country scores, the selection of indicators matters enormously. But that’s not the case with the roadmaps, so the limitations of the indicators—while still necessary to understand—become less important. All in all, USAID landed on an adequate cross-country snapshot that’s artfully presented.

Are these snapshots useful?

The value of any quantitative assessment comes in the purpose or purposes it serves. Here, I would argue, USAID’s new roadmaps are likely to have a mixed record, only partially fulfilling the purposes the agency sets out for them (these are: positioning countries on a self-reliance spectrum, informing USAID strategy, contributing to development dialogue, and signaling when USAID might consider a strategic transition).

What the roadmaps can do

The roadmaps do plot where countries fall along a self-reliance spectrum. And they have a role to play in signaling when USAID might consider a strategic transition. They’re unlikely to be the signal themselves. After all, the roadmaps don’t tell USAID anything it doesn’t already know with respect to which countries have an advanced level of development and might be ready to transition from grant-based aid to other forms of cooperation. Countries that fall into the “high self-reliance” range are those that have been in discussion for years about transitioning to a type of cooperation more appropriate for their level of development (Albania, Jamaica, Montenegro); don’t have missions and receive minimal (or no) aid (Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Mauritius, Romania); or whose relationship with USAID has a strong element of US strategic interests to it (Armenia, Georgia, Mexico). But the roadmaps will likely be useful in transparently corroborating any transition decisions the agency ultimately makes.

Furthermore, while not often discussed as a core purpose, the roadmaps have an important internal signaling role, pushing staff across the agency—in Washington and in each mission—to reorient their thinking in terms of the new self-reliance agenda. They also provide a prop for missions to initiate these conversations with country counterparts. The roadmaps will not (and should not) exclusively define how staff think about self-reliance, but their tangibility and visibility can have a catalytic role in driving a shift in thinking.

Their use is limited for strategy setting, however. . .

I’m more skeptical of the roadmaps’ ability to inform strategic decisions and anchor USAID’s country strategies, even as an entry point. The high-level indicators are so broad they have little direct relevance to most USAID sector (and sub-sector)-based programming. Showcasing a country’s performance relative to other countries on a high-level measure just isn’t terribly relevant to the process of identifying and implementing country-specific solutions to development challenges.

The Journey to Self-Reliance itself offers a smart framework for strategic decisions—asking how USAID can support countries’ efforts to take on more responsibility in a given sector. But the answers to these questions will need to come from conversations that revolve around things like co-financing arrangements, capacity building, and involving local actors in procurement decisions for specific USAID-supported investments. Data can be useful for informing these conversations. But it’s the additional, more country-specific and sector-specific analytics USAID is developing that will be more useful. Conversations about cross-country performance on broad indicators seem like more of a distraction.

The roadmaps might play a role in resource allocation decisions across areas. A mission might be motivated to request increased funding or strengthen programmatic focus in an under-resourced area that shows weaker performance. But successful reprogramming will depend a great deal on funding flexibility. While USAID under Green has made the welcome step of forgoing new initiatives to allow country strategies to be more customizable based on evidence, many previously established initiatives are still active, as are many congressional prerogatives. The roadmaps may help USAID or individual missions advocate for more flexibility—promising accountability through evidence-orientation. This is a sound position for the agency to take—as long as demonstration of evidence-orientation extends well beyond the roadmaps to evidence-based program design and robust evaluation—even if it’s unlikely to be a quick and easy path.

. . . and for dialogue around development and reform

I’m also skeptical that the roadmaps will meaningfully contribute to USAID’s development dialogue with partner countries. An important role of a USAID mission is to open space for reform conversations and help shape policy direction. Bringing evidence to bear on these policy dialogues can be an important contribution. The type of evidence the roadmaps provide, however, isn’t the most useful for this purpose. Research shows that external indicator-based assessments may play a role in shaping policies, but often in ways that respond more to the indicator (or donor demands around the indicator) rather than in ways that push meaningful reform; this is found with governance-focused assessments in particular. Assessments that are more likely to influence policy are detailed, country specific, and use host country data (among other things). USAID is smart to emphasize that it will also bring this kind of data and analysis into its policy conversations. But the role for the roadmaps themselves seems limited.

Part of the roadmaps’ limitation is that the indicators don’t speak well to the kinds of reform conversations USAID often has. While USAID’s policy engagement does sometimes take the form of big, broad governance statements (e.g., respect civil liberties, conduct free and fair elections), much of its policy conversations are more narrow and specific to the sectors USAID invests in (e.g., revisions to an energy law, supporting the government’s adoption of a WHO-recommended treatment protocol for HIV)—things that aren’t captured in the indicators.

Even when an indicator does capture a particular policy area a mission might want to highlight, a policy conversation requires being able to say more about why a country performs the way it does than a top-line number can give. Diving into the underlying data to parse out this kind of information can be difficult and time-consuming and may overtax busy mission staff (though USAID is developing some Washington-based support).

There’s also a risk that the roadmaps hinder policy dialogue by suggesting relatively good performance in an area the mission is pushing the country to improve, or by sparking defensiveness among country counterparts at being presented with an unfavorable assessment and/or something a host country perceives to be prescriptive (the data tool isn’t meant to be prescriptive, of course, but “roadmap” is a tricky name with its “this is how you get there” implications).

Perhaps my skepticism will prove unfounded. What’s encouraging is that USAID—reflecting the agency’s growing focus on learning and adapting—is committed to understanding the roadmaps’ strengths and limitations. By soliciting feedback from missions, it will learn how the roadmaps are used in practice and what staff resources are needed to use them well. I’ll look forward to hearing the results. In the meantime. . .

Keep the focus on the bigger steps along the Journey to Self-Reliance

Though the roadmaps are the first visible manifestation of USAID’s self-reliance approach, the “Journey” is about so much more than metrics. The agency’s expected forthcoming deliverables—like a self-reliance learning agenda and self-reliance policy framework, a strategy for private sector engagement, and new approaches to domestic resource mobilization and procurement reform, among other things—will doubtlessly reflect this. In the end, what really matters for advancing USAID’s self-reliance goals will be how missions meaningfully collaborate with local stakeholders; how plans to support partner country capacity and commitment are built into project activities; how procurements are structured to involve and build the capacity of local actors; how USAID takes a gradual, consultative, and well thought out approach to strategic transitions for select countries. These steps aren’t often as visible as a data tool, nor as compellingly presentable, but USAID is working hard on getting them right. They’ll be where the Journey to Self-Reliance will prove itself.

Disclaimer

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