Woody Navin’s Analysis of the “Enduring Struggle: The History of the United States Agency for Int’l Development

This book is an outstanding contribution. In recording USAID’s history, it reflects not only a deep understanding of best practices in international development, but the political and budgetary challenges that USAID has faced and continues to face. Major successes are cited, as well as some shortcomings. But the book’s rigor seems to have waned when discussing the most recent Shah and Green administrations under Presidents Obama and Trump. While some programs and initiatives are cited, many positive platitudes aren’t supported, and many problems weren’t revealed. Norris’s book contains wonderful Endnotes and Bibliography, but data sources become much weaker in reference to the most recent decade. Here are some other examples of the book offering up some unsupported opinions about USAID’s work:

  • “The Agency…made publicly available a wide range of its own evaluation reports from across the globe.” No source was cited, and that does not seem to be the case. (page 223)
  • Fear of failure. While the book cites this staff trait in earlier years of USAID, how prevalent is it now? When Administrator Shah gave his first speech to USAID staff, he said that he welcomed knowledge of failure as a source of how to improve. Did he follow through, or did he too succumb to pressures to declare success under his watch, thereby continuing the practice of USAID not improving results on the ground?
  • Was the “Feed the Future Global Performance Evaluation” dated December 2016 an example of suppressing negative findings? One of the principal authors had her name removed from the final report because she disagreed with the edits that USAID requested from the consulting firm, which DEXIS obliged.
  • Did the Feed the Future monitoring and evaluation metrics yield lessons for improved performance, and document sustainable and replicable impacts? It seems that Administrator Shah, and Paul Weisenfeld who headed FTF when it began, promised and delivered to Congress an annual progress report that simply provided outputs that could be measured and achieved on an annual basis. This seemed sufficient for Congressional overseers, USAID maintained funding levels. What needs further examining is the accuracy of such numbers, and whether these annual outputs result in higher order sustainable and replicable outcomes and results. For example, did higher production levels of maize by a farmer result in increased income for that farmer, or did the cost of use of fertilizer and seed negate the profit, especially if the maize production also came from lowering production of other crops that were on the land, or required more labor that took away from other household activities? Did FTF harm farmer resilience (via diversified cropping patterns and ratoations) by encouraging farmers to emphasize one crop (such as orange-fleshed sweet potatoes or maize)?
  • Under Administrator Power, will Feed the Future successes be expanded beyond its current de minimus 12 countries, or be replicable beyond the relatively tiny geographic Zones of Influence within those 12 countries?
  • The book cited “USAID’s Legacy in Agricultural Development” from 2014 to identify many of USAID’s wonderful successes, but the book did not cite the recommendations from that document. For example, it said,
    “In some instances, it appears that the Agency’s activities wound down before all the components became fully sustainable…Second and closely related, is the Agency too readily satisfied with successful pilots and content to move on, leaving it to other stakeholders and donors to scale up?” [page 175] “There are many instances where we have adjusted our approach. Our understanding of agricultural development continues to expand. In the early years, we focused on production and technical “fixes” without considering constraints elsewhere. We didn’t pay attention to markets, policy reform, tenure issues, or the central role of women in agricultural production systems. Many USAID programs focused largely on crops to the exclusion of livestock, sheep and goats, fisheries, agro-forestry and vegetable production” [page 156].
    Did USAID follow these recommendations? Is USAID really an organization that welcomes honest evaluations and learns from its shortcomings? What needs to happen for this to become the case? Perhaps these are also topics for another book.
  • Feed the Future. Despite what the book says, it is not clear that FTF “leaned heavily on public-private partnerships” [where is discussion or evidence of achievements from Shah’s signature “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition?]; nor that USAID actually established and staffed 100 new agricultural officer positions [page 214]; nor that it made progress with land tenure [MCC may have done more]; nor that the “agricultural research labs” were anything more than a renaming of the Collaborative Research Support Programs (CRSPs) that USAID had with US universities for decades [page 215]; nor was evidence presented to support the claim that President Obama… was able to make modest progress in instituting food aid reforms” {page 216]; nor that Administrator Shah’s statement supporting “a strong evaluation function and feedback loop” actually was implemented {page 217]. In fact, AID/W’s evaluation office was not strengthened, and FTF’s highly complex monitoring analytics did not substantiate progress achieving results at the outcome and impact level, just at the lower level output level.
  • Young African Leaders Initiative. “This model was soon expanded to both Southeast Asia and the Americas” [page 225]. This statement was not supported, and it is highly dubious given that YALI was very poorly funded and staffed even for Africa. What is the status today?
  • Global Development Laboratory and the Global Innovation Fund [page 225]. While the book cites one major success and one major failure, Mr. Norris does not cite an evaluation or other sources that comment on the overall impacts of these Administrator Shah initiatives. The book might have found that these were funded not with new money, but by taking from other USAID programs. Was there a net gain or loss in innovation? Should existing programs have been encouraged to be more innovative? Did staffing the Lab with contractors, rather than regular government employees, result in a permanent improvement in USAID’s structure and capabilities?
  • Mr. Norris also said, “And if there was a major complaint about Shah’s tenure, it was that he pushed ideas forward faster than his own bureaucracy could digest them.” While this statement seems to be an attempt to praise Shah at the expense of the Agency, it really is quite condemning of the Administrator. But more than that, Mr. Norris didn’t substantiate his statement, and many would object to it, some saying that Administrator Shah didn’t seek out experts on his staff who could either help make his ideas work, or just tell him that they might make good grandstanding, but they were likely to fail.
  • Mark Green’s tenure. “AID also showed a new willingness to measure the effectiveness of its programs against simply giving poor households cash” [page 235]. This statement was not supported.
  • The “Journey to Self-reliance” (page 234). Mr. Norris comments that “The language bore a striking resemblance to that used by presidents Kennedy and Johnson almost sixty years earlier.” Indeed, every Administration issues similar aspirations using language such as Kennedy’s “help them help themselves,” self-sufficiency, graduation, from aid to trade, relief to development, etc. Mr. Norris could have noted that Green’s “journey” fits well with the Trump Administration’s push to disengage from foreign nation-building, particularly in countries that couldn’t immediately help the U.S. Its implementation, in some countries, resulted in country scorecards that were judgmental and hurt bi-lateral arrangements, caused panic as USAID Missions feared budget cuts, and diverted efforts from actually achieving results to the monitoring of many implementation. Did USAID’s new metrics do more than duplicate preexisting UN Sustainable Development Goals and raise the bureaucratic burden on poor countries with weak institutions and staffing?
  • PEPFAR. What is the evidence that this program was/is efficiently run as well as having good results? Many complained that PEPFAR metrics were excessive, far beyond the needs for good implementation, but. perhaps good for US researchers. Taking an example from the health sector, to what extent have local entities, including governments, picked up the recurrent costs of HIV treatments that the USG has been paying?
  • Millennium Challenge Corporation. Mr. Norris captures well some of the bureaucratic fighting over where the MCC should be located and its structure. But the book is off the mark when it said, “There is now near universal appreciation regarding the degree to which [MCC] …has changed development. [page 194]” No evaluations of MCC were cited, maybe because very few were done by neutral third parties. Such evaluations might show that MCC’s use of control groups was virtually useless for assessing agriculture activities whose results depended on mother nature including the weather. Also, one could ask whether the large amounts of funding that went to so few, and relatively insignificant countries (e.g., Cape Verde) really were cost effective.
  • Contractor, university, and NGO performance. To what extent have honest self-evaluations about their programs’ impacts been shared with USAID (USAID pays overhead to them that covers such work)? Without this, USAID is limited in its ability to learn and improve aid efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Aid efficiency and effectiveness. Another book could examine how USAID did or didn’t follow through on guidance and metrics of the 2005 Paris Agreement on Aid Effectiveness. Did subsequent Administrations, with Administrators Natios, Shah, and Green, build upon these best practices, or did they create their own in keeping with the adage that each Administration needs to claim novelty? How much progress did the USG make in international policy coherence among Commerce, USTR, USDA, and USAID? Surprisingly, Mr. Norris didn’t even cite in this book his important 2011 paper, “5 Steps to Make our Aid More Effective.”

Given that “The Enduring Struggle…” captures exceedingly well the challenges that USAID faces, many of the above comments appear to be minor quibbles. But they are not. If another book and further research could examine them, and talk with other insightful people, such as George Ingram and Professor Thomas Jayne, USAID programming and results would improve, as long as strong Executive Branch leadership could protect USAID’s budget from cuts that some on the Hill might like to make when USAID reveals that there is much that still needs improvement to make development assistance both effective and efficient.

By Woody Navin