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.