USAIDs role in development

Before the beginning of my time with USAID Uganda I didn’t understand all the different avenues for development that existed.  I had some grassroots level field experience in Togo from Peace, but beyond that, the workings of large bureaucratic machines like USAID were a mystery.

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned this summer is how USAID procurement works, who its partners are and the type of funding mechanisms that exist.  Even though I’m still unsure of whether or not working in the public sphere is a good fit for me personally, I am less disillusioned about the US government’s role in development and have grown to appreciate and respect the work that is done at this level.

Essentially USAID plays the vital role of patron for partnering organizations (otherwise known as Implementing Partners- or IPs).  But it is more than just the money. Many of the concepts for large-scale development objectives derive at USAID and, more broadly, Washington policies.  Project concepts are laid out here.  These concepts are results-based, meaning that USAID will put out request for proposals that specify objectives to be met.  For example, a project for improved food security might specify end-result objects like an increase output (harvest) of maize by 25% and increase appropriate input (fertilizer, for example) availability by 30%.   These objectives are easily quantifiable and will then be measured through careful monitoring and evaluation methods.  When this type of request for proposal goes out organizations, firms, etc. are able to then propose ways to achieve the desired outcomes.  I’ve found that this type of proposal request allows for a certain amount of innovation.  For instance, USAID doesn’t tell potential partners how to carry out a certain project.  Instead, they lay out the results they expect.

This type of results-based guidelines also offers another incentive.  USAID works primarily through contracts, or profit-based, high-risk agreements where partners are held to standards laid out in the project contract.  If USAID was to outline how certain objectives were to be met and the IP followed exactly these directions and the outcomes weren’t achieved, USAID is at fault.  When IPs are following their program and not achieving the results, contract enforces ensues (fault lies with the IP).  Before my summer in Kampala I had little understanding of the role of contracts and for-profit firms in development.  Now I’ve come to appreciate some of the large firms effectiveness in achieving project results, their efficiency and professionalism.  Though the “corporate” atmosphere is not for everyone, I’ve come to believe that the development status-quo requires these types of contracts to create real impact.

The other two mechanisms are either grants or cooperative agreements.  These are usually smaller-in-scale and less binding. They are often awarded to non-profits and smaller organizations and can also create opportunities for innovation- trying out new methods, etc.

One of the frustrations, I’m sure for many organizations in development is gaining access to the US government’s funds.  It seems to be a little of an “in” group “out” group situation where firms/organizations with the know-how and resources to draft impressive proposals or bids for projects are often the winners (and continuously so).  It’s somewhat of a catch-22 where the winners are winning and the losers are just trying to win.  Someone at USAID told me one of the main differences between nonprofit work and work with the government in development is money.  As a nonprofit employee you may feel as if you are always asking for money and as a USAID foreign services officer you may feel as if you are constantly asked for money.  I guess the third piece of the puzzle is who is able to win the money after all the asking. Nonetheless, the process has strict guidelines with a hoard of USAID lawyers that oversee contract procedures.  Rules and regulations make sure there is equal competitiveness among partners for project bids and that the selection process is void of bias.

USAID plays the important role of mediator between our US government money and the implementing partners that are in the field.  It lays out objectives that are meant to promote sustainable growth and American values while adhering to the capitalist system of fair and competitive bidding.  Though the red-tape and bureaucracy may cause unnecessary delays and abundant frustration, getting money to the right people is essential for effective development programs.

The Embassy is housed with USAID in Kampala

The Embassy is housed with USAID in Kampala

US embassy kampala

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USAID Uganda

I’ve had a wonderful summer in Uganda thus far. My internship with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been both extremely beneficial and eye-opening. I have had the opportunity to learn about the tools, methods, and logistics of development from a top-down perceptive and have had exposure to the policies of the United States government concerning foreign aid and development. Overall, I feel that I will enter the job market with more vocational clarity.

In sub-Saharan Africa, USAID works to help African governments, institutions, and organizations advance good governance principles and innovative approaches to health, education, economic growth, and agriculture and the environment. In Uganda, USAID began its assistance immediately after independence in 1962. Although priorities have evolved over the past five decades, USAID’s commitment to Uganda continues to focus broadly on improving people’s livelihoods. The USAID office in Uganda has three program areas: Governance and Democracy; Health, HIV and Education; and Economic Growth. Each of the program areas are further broken down by additional areas of focus. I have been working in the Economic Growth office which is comprised of sections in Agriculture/Food Security; Natural Resource Management/Environment; and Vulnerable Populations. Overall, the specific technical areas advance broad-based growth by working comprehensively in (respectively): specific crops (maize, beans and coffee) and value-chain development, addressing the environmental aspects of the oil industry and ecotourism, and improving nutrition, especially among the most vulnerable people. I’ve been lucky to work on projects in all three areas and have found their collaboration and cross-cutting project design and implementation inspiring. Specifically I have worked closely with the Feed the Future (FtF) project- (the US Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative) started by President Obama back in 2008. The week I arrived I was able to participate in a FtF Partners’ conference where representatives from the US government, the Ugandan Government, the private and non-profit sectors were represented (around 90 participants). This jump-started my exposure to the various actors in development in Uganda. I was responsible for drafting the synthesis report from the event and now I have been responsible for the dissemination of information on USAID Feed the Future projects, activity procurements and baseline survey results to stakeholders. It’s allowed for a lot of valuable networking opportunities.

I have also actively sought out opportunities to build skill-sets in Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E), a critical need in development. Monitoring and Evaluation is the process that is used to measure the effectiveness of project/activity interventions. In USAID M&E serves as a reporting tool to communicate back to Washington (Congress) on the use of funds, project outcomes and effectiveness. I have been fortunate to support (and learn from) USAID Uganda’s Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) specialists in the processing of survey data, the creation of appropriate Feed the Future indicators, and Data Quality Assessments (DQAs) with Implementing Partners. I have also been fortunate to work in projects involving gender and female empowerment- which is an area that I have much interest. I have monitored a project funded by USAID in collaboration with Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA) involving a Randomized Controlled

Trail (RCT) on gender and nutrition. This monitoring has allowed me to leave Kampala and see how the management and support that USAID gives, manifests in the field. The best part of my summer this far has been getting out of the capital. My time in Kampala is reminiscent of my time in Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Though there are many differences in the culture, climate, etc. between the two countries- being in Kampala makes me miss Togo, my friends there and the work I was doing. I think the titles for former Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) is telling- we are called Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). This acronym is reflective of the fact that part of us remains a PCV forever. The cultural competency that I learned in Togo was easily transferable here. Specifically, humility and observation; I find these are power tools in learning things about a country that go beyond the surface level. I feel fortunate to have had such a positive experience. Even though the majority of my work has been in an office, my “Peace Corps nature” has made me culturally curious and confident to go and explore the country outside what can sometimes be an “expat bubble.

visit to IPA's pilot village for the RCT on gender in Nutrition

visit to IPA’s pilot village for the RCT on gender in Nutritionmarket kampala