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New USAID director aims to shake up 60-year-old aid agency. Here's her 'new vision'

USAID Administrator Samantha Power delivered a speech on her "new vision" for the agency on Nov. 4 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
USAID Administrator Samantha Power delivered a speech on her "new vision" for the agency on Nov. 4 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Sixty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy established the United States Agency for International Development.

It's one of the largest foreign aid agencies in the world. With a budget of tens of billions of dollars, it does everything from supporting girls' education in lower-income countries to spearheading electricity programs in sub-Saharan Africa.

The agency gets praise for its life-saving health interventions. Since 2012, it has funded vaccinations for 25.3 million children against deadly preventable diseases. And in partnership with PEPFAR, the U.S. global HIV/AIDS program, it has supported antiretroviral treatment for more than 11.5 million people.

But USAID has also been criticized for wasting billions of dollars in funds. It was tasked with nation-building in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 for example, setting up schools and health care facilities, but much of the money went into the pockets of corrupt officials and many of the projects fell into disrepair, according to a report from The Washington Post.

Now its new leader, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, has set out her ideas to transform the agency.

Power, who was sworn into office in May, shared her "New Vision for Global Development" in a speech delivered on Thursday at Georgetown University.

Here are five problems that Power highlighted — and her proposed fixes — in her speech. We also asked a few specialists from the Center for Global Development, a think tank that focuses on poverty and inequality, to weigh in.

Problem: The 9,000-person staff isn't diverse enough.

Solution: Recruit, recruit, recruit.

Power started by asking the students in the audience at Georgetown to help "staff the agency for the future." People of color, she said, are "significantly underrepresented in senior positions and policy and technical roles" at USAID.

"If we want an agency that reflects the best of what America has to offer, all of our dynamism, all of our fresh perspectives, all of our best thinking, then we must prioritize the hiring and retention of staff that looks like America," she said.

Power said that since she joined USAID, she has supported a new diversity, equity and inclusion strategy and hosted recruiting events geared to Black and Hispanic students. Going forward, USAID aims to increase its budget for paid internships "by nearly 700% to more than $4.5 million because we know that unpaid internships can be a barrier to entry for candidates from underrepresented communities." USAID will also bring on a chief diversity officer to "help us hold ourselves accountable to these goals."

Problem: Local aid groups and businesses that partner with USAID need more support.

Solution: Give them more money and a stronger voice at the decision-making table.

"If we truly want to make aid inclusive, local voices need to be at the center of everything we do. We've got to tap into the knowledge of local communities and their lived experiences," she said.

"Yet in the last decade, despite numerous efforts, initiatives and even support from Capitol Hill, the amount of U.S. dollars going to local partners increased only from 4% to 6%. As recently as 2017, 60% of our assistance was awarded to just 25 partners," she said.

Moving forward, said Power, USAID will provide "at least a quarter of all of our funds directly to local partners" over the next four years. And by the end of the decade, "50% of our programming, at least half of every dollar we spend, will need to place local communities in the lead" to set priorities, design projects and evaluate the impact of USAID programs.

Problem: USAID programs aren't reaching women, girls and people from marginalized backgrounds — such as Indigenous and LGBTQI people and persons with disabilities.

Solution: Assign in-country dedicated foreign service officers to focus on their needs.

"Going forward, we want every mission to have a dedicated foreign service officer whose primary focus is gender equality and inclusive development," said Power.

Megan O'Donnell, policy fellow and assistant director for gender at the think tank Center for Global Development, welcomed this new role, but she stresses that the officer can't just have a vanity title. "It would need to be someone with expertise in the topic and who will make connections with the local women's organizations," she says — not "any woman already sitting within a mission, just having this title tacked on to their preexisting duties."

Problem: USAID programs are sometimes based on preconceived ideas, not data.

Solution: Gather evidence.

"We can't assume that what works in one culture or community will easily work in another. To understand human behavior, we need concrete data, not intuitions or assumptions," she said.

She said she will establish a new Office of Behavioral Science and Experimental Economics "that will report to a new, elevated and expanded chief economist." The team will gather evidence from the communities USAID serves, use it to design new programs — and also conduct trials to see if these initiatives are successful.

"We were quite excited about this idea," says Erin Collinson, director of policy outreach at the Center for Global Development. "With authority, staff and a real budget, the chief economist could do more to integrate evidence within the agency's programming."

Problem: The world needs to be prepared for the next pandemic.

Solution: Don't wait until it's too late.

Power wants to make sure that the global health inequalities brought on by the pandemic don't happen again. During the COVID-19 crisis, for example, the vast majority of vaccines are produced by the world's largest economies, even though the vast majority of need is in developing countries, she said.

Power said "we are establishing a new and dedicated USAID Emergency Response Unit to lead on infectious disease outbreaks."

And she plans to double "the number of partner countries we will support in preventing and detecting pandemic threats."

Outside perspective: Will it all happen?

Now there's always reason to be a bit ... skeptical. "We're cautiously optimistic that USAID is going to do as much as it can to implement these plans as quickly as possible," says O'Donnell of CGD. "But we have to be mindful that similar efforts have been underway before."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib
Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.