USAID steps up ‘languishing’ diversity, equity, and inclusion effort

After being stalled during former President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy was signed earlier this year. That kicked off a variety of actions to improve both the agency’s internal operations and staffing.
The focus on DEI is driven by administration-wide priorities and a series of executive directives, including executive orders. It is also one of USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s top priorities.

On her first day on the job in May, Power signed USAID’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility strategic plan. It was written by career USAID staff and completed in 2020, but had been “languishing during the last [presidential] administration,” according to Erin Brown, USAID’s interim DEI director.
Trump had signed an executive order banning diversity and racial sensitivity training for federal agencies and contractors. It was overturned shortly after President Joe Biden took office.

The new strategy lays out a series of steps the agency will take to enhance diversity of underrepresented groups in its hiring and policies; enhance inclusion and equity for everyone in the workplace; improve accountability for promoting and sustaining a diverse workforce; and build an inclusive agency culture. The strategy notably states that a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace at USAID is a shared responsibility, and shouldn’t fall to underrepresented staff to tackle, Power said in the strategy’s executive summary.

In a November speech, Power emphasized DEI as she laid out her vision for the agency. “We must offer people, not a vision merely of international development but a vision of inclusive development,” she said. Power outlined a series of efforts to broaden who works for and with USAID, including a new localization initiative, bolstering hiring, and retention of underrepresented groups.

As one of her first moves to make her vision a reality, Power established a chief DEI officer role at USAID. The person will sit in the office of the administrator and coordinate DEI activities both externally and internally with the agency’s workforce. The agency submitted a congressional notification in October outlining a reorganization that would create the Office of the Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility officer. After consultations with staff in the House and Senate, the reorganization will proceed. Brown is serving in the role as the agency awaits a permanent hire.
USAID has also established DEI advisers and DEI committees in all of its bureaus, offices, and missions. The committees have a common set of objectives and measurable performance indicators. USAID has also created an agency-wide dashboard and DEI scorecards for all bureaus, offices, and missions so that progress toward those objectives can be transparently tracked.

While part of the diversity push is broadening who USAID is working with, it also means looking internally within USAID’s workforce, Brown said last week at a conference organized by the Professional Services Council. That means looking at how the agency invests in DEI through five areas: people, policy, practices, programs, and partnerships, she said.
Brown also described a sixth overarching focus: principles, adding that USAID is now working on a set of principles that will guide its work.
Hispanic and Indigenous staff, along with persons with disabilities, are “significantly underrepresented,” while the percentages “are somewhat more representative” of the U.S. population for Asian, Black, and African American staff, though all are underrepresented in senior positions and policy and technical roles, Power said in the November speech.

In the fiscal year 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, USAID’s direct hire workforce was 3.24% Hispanic females or Latinas, 2.82% Hispanic males or Latinos, 14% Black or African American females, 6.81% Black or African American males, 5.73% Asian females and 3.67% Asian males. Fiscal year 2021 data is not yet available, but a spokesperson said that more than 40% of the agency’s political appointees identify as people of color and a majority of them are women.

USAID is also working to incorporate DEIA into its policy frameworks. As part of that effort, it is reviewing all internal operational policies, especially those focused on the employment life cycle, “from recruiting through retention, to ensure that we don’t unintentionally discriminate against staff,” Brown said, adding that the agency will make updates “as appropriate.”

USAID has updated its guidance for the New Partnership Initiative action plans, which will require all missions to describe the approaches they will use to diversify their partner bases, Brown said. NPI, which started during the previous presidential administration, aims to broaden the agency’s partner base by making it easier for smaller organizations to access funding.

The agency also completed an external equity assessment looking at barriers to equity across the program cycle. It identified about 61 recommendations for improvement, she said. The agency is now working to establish strategies throughout the process — from program design to implementation — that institutionalize equity.

It is currently doing consultations on a draft equity action plan that will prioritize recommendations from the external assessment, but it is not yet available to the public because USAID is “still in a deliberative/predecisional stage,” a USAID spokesperson told Devex.

USAID also launched a minority-serving institutions initiative, which is working with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities to expand the pipeline of diverse candidates. USAID has already hosted two recruiting conferences targeting these groups. In October, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Delaware State University, a historically Black university, with more agreements with historically black colleges and universities in the works.

USAID will also scale up paid internship and fellowship programs and plans to double the number of Donald M. Payne fellowships by 2023, which helps students from historically underrepresented groups pay for two years of graduate school before offering them foreign service appointments at USAID.
The agency is also looking beyond entry-level hiring to ensure that there is equity and diversity at all levels as employees advance in their careers, Brown said.

A recent policy change — supporting paid parental leave and relocation expenses for personal services contractors — should also help advance equity, she said.