Home Blog & Media Operationalizing USAID’s New Vision for Global Development 

Operationalizing USAID’s New Vision for Global Development 

November 29, 2021

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Cynthia Smith

Director, Global Initiatives, US


Jenna Thoretz

Senior Manager, Global Initiatives, US

Earlier this month, USAID Administrator Samantha Power outlined “A New Vision for Global Development,” which places inclusive development at the fore of the Agency’s agenda. While stressing the importance of  diversity, equity, and inclusion, localization, and evidence-based decision making in this new vision, Power acknowledged that similar aspirations have faltered in the past.

In fact, USAID has attempted to diversify and localize to some degree for the past two decades. For instance, under the Obama administration, former Administrator Rajiv Shah set the ambitious goal of directing 30% of mission funding to local institutions by 2015 through the Local Solutions Initiative. This target was never achieved. During the Trump administration, former Administrator Mark Green’s Journey to Self-Reliance Initiative sought to create a roadmap and incremental measures for localization. The Initiative remains foundational to Power’s vision; it was arguably stymied by a lack of sectoral buy-in, an onerous regulatory compliance regime, and the lack of diversity in personnel and approach to locally-led development.

Administrator Power flagged the latter two of these impediments when mapping out her new agenda, noting that the operations and compliance flexibilities USAID introduced during the height of the pandemic, and which permitted greater decentralization of decision-making authority, were critical to continued operations.

Moreover, USAID’s historical lack of diversity in both personnel and programming, as detailed in a 2020 Government Accountability Office report, weakened its ability to achieve previous localization targets.  With its focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Biden administration’s executive order for federal agencies underpins USAID’s new agenda. In her remarks, Power announced an increase in partnerships with Historically Black and Hispanic Universities to help diversify future USAID hires. Additionally, Power committed to a 700 percent increase in funding for paid internships with USAID so that a more diverse cohort of young professionals can gain access to experience working with the Agency. A Chief Diversity Officer will oversee these changes and others – the first in the Agency’s history.

The Administrator also recognized that USAID needs to better support and engage its local staff. According to Power, these staff, frequently referred to as Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs), “are the heart and soul of [USAID’s] Missions overseas.” Yet, they do not benefit from the same opportunities for advancement as their American peers. Equally important, they are not given the decision-making responsibility to meaningfully shape local development. Administrator Power’s proposed reforms attempt to address these limitations, at least in part.

As recently as 2017, some 60 percent of USAID funding went to just 25 organizations, most of which were large international NGOs. Power pledged that over the next four years, 25 percent of funding will be allocated directly to local organizations. Even more ambitious, Power declared that 50 percent of USAID programming would put local organizations in the lead by the end of the decade. And, she announced the launch of —WorkWithUSAID.org—an online platform designed to guide local organizations in working with USAID funding.

Administrator Power’s remarks come at the convergence of several critical events that make this a promising time for lasting change. First, despite its worldwide devastation, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo of aid delivery. When international organizations and their expat staff could not travel or remain in post, local staff were ready and equipped to carry out programming in their own communities. For USAID, FSNs were key in maintaining the Agency’s operations and programming during the height of the global pandemic.

The pandemic also re-shone a spotlight on existing injustices and inequalities within the United States, and worldwide. The 2020 global movement for racial equity was a breakthrough moment building on years of community-based work from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has necessitated conversations around institutional racism, White and Western privilege, and power relations in many INGOs. This intersection of the pandemic and the movement for racial equity has rendered it all but impossible for donors and INGOs alike to continue to ignore the colonial and racist underpinnings of the sector. Building on the success of the BLM movement in the United States, organizations and practitioners from less developed countries similarly have pushed locally-led development to the fore. Finally, and not insignificantly, there is rare bi-partisan support for locally-led development in Congress.

The global development community must seize the opportunity these transformational movements have created. For a more inclusive agenda to take root and not be undermined by the shifting political winds of each new administration, we must endeavor to bridge the divides that exist between entrenched interests and agents for change. Administrator Power just took the first step in doing so by formally and forcefully acknowledging that prior reforms failed, in part, because of the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Agency’s personnel and programming.

It is now incumbent upon the sector to coalesce around the growing consensus for change. Over the past year, Humentum has accompanied our members in doing just that. Humentum members have engaged in dialogue and self-examination, developed DEI policies and procedures, and invested in programming co-creation with local actors and entities in a more concerted way. Remarkably, we have also seen INGOs merge, consolidate, and even fully cede power to local groups for the first time in history.

At the same time, we have convened local and international organizations to identify and discuss the challenges to operationalizing a more inclusive development strategy for the sector. These organizations have voiced overwhelming support for localization and have called for reduced administrative and compliance burdens and a stronger focus on developing local capacity and ownership. Local and international organizations alike have discussed the importance of centering local perspectives as donors move to operationalize locally-led development. Our work with INGO leaders and practitioners has revealed an internal willingness to shift power to local actors that must be replicated on a sector-wide scale.

As we move into 2022, the sector must also continue to engage the administration and Congress on policies – such as institutionalized flexibilities – that will enable a development ecosystem supportive of and conducive to locally-led development. Sharing a common language and vision for these changes is paramount to our success.  Despite our decades of experience operationalizing development policy, Humentum itself is still grappling with what this means for us and how we work with and for the sector. However, we are certain that in the coming months, it will be essential to engage in inquisitive and informed cross-sectoral discussions, with stakeholders from all sides, to identify our shared values and map out a strategy for operationalizing them. Only then can we hope to turn policy propositions like Administrator Powers’ into reality.

For more information on Humentum member and sector dialogues on power shifting, the new world of work, DEI, and locally-led development see here.

Government Affairs and Advocacy at Humentum