Monday, October 18, 2010

Can USAID Reach Escape Velocity?

Can USAID be saved? The aid agency has been on the ropes for the last few years. First it was folded firmly into the State Department, reducing its independence. Then its problems were dissected in great and depressing detail by a former Administrator, Andrew Natsios. In an excellent paper, Natsios shows how a culture of compliance and caution has overwhelmed the agency, making it almost impossible for even the best staff to deliver results.

Few would argue that USAID is on the ropes. But there are some bright spots that offer hope. One of these is LAUNCH, a global initiative formed by NASA, Nike, USAID and the U.S. Department of State to identify and to support innovations that meet the world’s urgent challenges. LAUNCH will announce the winners of its Health Forum on October 30.

The aid field has been dominated by solutions that are top-down and incremental. Instead of trying to simply “procure” the cheapest or the best available solutions from the usual suspects, LAUNCH challenges nearly anyone to come up with breakthrough ideas. Bottom-up solutions alone won’t save USAID anymore than purely top-down ones will. But if the agency can achieve a critical mass of bottom-up initiatives, it just might escape the gravitational pull that threatens to have the agency crash and burn.

Fortunately, LAUNCH is not the only such initiative at USAID. Others, such as Development Innovation Ventures and Global Development Commons, are also pointing in the right direction.

But there is one more thing. USAID and other agencies need to make sure they are addressing the right problems. That, too, will require new approaches since aid workers and experts are not always in touch with what beneficiaries actually care about or need.