5 questions to ask about the QDDR

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks during the April 22, 2014, launch of the review process of the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. Photo by: U.S. State Department

The second U.S. Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review is finally poised to launch, but will the strategic document have a meaningful impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign affairs?

After a year of consultations — and months spent grappling with an interagency review and clearance process — the QDDR architects are ready to release it, Devex has learned. Now, development thinkers, politicians, policymakers and implementing partners will have their chance to decide whether the four-year review process lends clarity and decisiveness to their mission, or whether it will fall prey to politics, posturing and turf battles.

When former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initiated the QDDR process in 2010, it was intended as a “smart power” counterpart to the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which examines shifts in the global threat environment and recalibrates U.S. military readiness to them.

A lot has changed since the first QDDR process. Former U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah’s controversial five-year tenure has come to a close. Clinton is no longer secretary of state, but a newly announced 2016 presidential candidate. Extreme poverty continues to concentrate in fragile and conflict-affected states, and capital flows to developing countries increasingly migrate from public institutions toward the private and philanthropic sectors.

The second QDDR will look to avoid some of the mistakes of its predecessor — accusations that it tried to tackle everything and, in doing so, fell short of implementable goals. It’s a common perception that turf battles between the State Department and USAID obstructed a clear, unified vision for U.S. foreign affairs implementation.

We spoke with industry insiders to compile a list of questions we should all ask when the QDDR finally hits our inboxes — or when it comes to a think tank panel near you.

Here are Devex’s top five questions about the second QDDR:

1. Will the document be politically dead on arrival?

The QDDR arrives at an interesting time in Washington, D.C., to say the least. U.S. President Barack Obama is fighting to shore up his legacy on a range of issues while presidential hopefuls stake out their own positions. The QDDR’s recommendations will be hard to divorce from the political environment they’re about to enter.

Physical risk management is one clear example.

U.S. foreign affairs officials working in “fortress embassies,” highly guarded compounds with controlled access, “feel like they’re cut off from the people they’re supposed to be working with,” George Ingram, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Devex.

One of the issues with enough weight to suggest it will make the QDDR cut is physical risk management, and observers hope the document will include practical recommendations to help U.S. personnel “manage risk, rather than just run away from it,” Ingram said.

But the issue is a potential political landmine, particularly given the timing of the QDDR’s release. The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, which occurred inside the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, has been a Republican rallying cry against Hillary Clinton, under whose watch the embassy attack occured. It was difficult during Clinton’s tenure to attend a congressional hearing on U.S. foreign affairs that didn’t include some recrimination from Congress about the poor state of U.S. embassy security — and Clinton’s culpability in the Benghazi breech.

The question becomes: Can the QDDR jump-start a commitment to managing physical risk in a way that allows diplomats and development professionals to interact safely with foreign populations, or will the document, a Clinton legacy in its own right, dredge up old battles as a contentious presidential campaign season gets underway?

The physical risk discussion is a “perfect example of something that can’t be solved just inside the building,” Ingram told Devex. Development implementers have grappled with the balance between safety and effective engagement for decades, usually “without getting killed,” Ingram said, and the lessons development NGOs and contractors have learned could add valuable substance to any conversation about risk management.

The “onus is on the development community” to steer the QDDR discussion toward the results common-sense recommendations could achieve and away from political rivalries, according to Casey Dunning, senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development.

2. Will the QDDR find sufficient leadership buy-in?

Institutional reform at America’s foreign policy institutions, including the QDDR process, is “plagued” by the fact that top-level leaders often aren’t around to implement it, Nazanin Ash, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, told Devex.

The secretary of state, in order to perform his or her job well, must spend significant, unforeseeable periods of time overseas conducting U.S. foreign affairs, instead of attending to the difficult details of institutional reform at home.

“You can’t do both and do them both well,” Ash told Devex.

USAID is currently operating under the leadership of an acting administrator, Alfonso Lenhardt, who is not a career development professional, but a former military officer and ambassador. The Obama administration has indicated that it will nominate a new administrator to replace Rajiv Shah, but those indications have so far not amounted to any concrete announcement.

High turnover already constitutes one of the “essential problems” for U.S. foreign affairs reform, Ash said. With so many U.S. development officers serving two- or three-year terms, from mission directors to office directors to foreign service officers, reform champions struggle to find the “staying power” to see their ideas and priorities to fruition, which creates real challenges for carrying out a long-term institutional reform process.

The fact that the QDDR process is happening at all is a positive signal, given the dearth of consistent, long-term planning at U.S. foreign affairs institutions. As Ash said, “one of the great things about this QDDR is that it’s the second one.”

3. Will the review include a clear implementation plan?

U.S. aid watchers hope the QDDR will be more than a thoughtful reflection on some of the broad trends shaping development. They want to see a document that lays out how its recommendations will be implemented — and perhaps one that reflects on what its predecessor has actually accomplished.

“Choose your topic,” Dunning said. “What I am hoping for [is that the] strategy is undergirded with specific ways that it’s going to be implemented,” she added.

When Devex caught up with the QDDR’s architects in June 2014, they were still “wrestling” with the metrics question — how the document might include performance benchmarks to judge whether or not it has accomplished its goals. A common criticism of the first strategic exercise was that it overreached in terms of subject matter and underperformed in terms of actionable results.

With less than two years remaining under the Obama administration, QDDR leaders will have to be particularly careful to propose actions that can be reasonably accomplished under a tight deadline. The document should not be a transition paper for the next administration, Ingram said, but instead an opportunity to set, “priorities for what the administration wants to finish up with.”

4. Will the QDDR tackle challenging workforce issues?

One of the big questions U.S. foreign affairs agencies need to ask themselves is: Do we have the right people with the right skills in the right places?

“Is it reasonable to expect that they will emerge with recommendations that have implications for their jobs, that have implications for their authorities?” Ash asked.

While many contend the last QDDR fell victim to turf battles between USAID and the State Department over institutional identity, in many ways those are the very questions that the document needs to be engaging and answering.

For example, the review process should not shy away from a “difficult conversation” about the role diplomats should play as development advocates, even if that sounds like encroachment into USAID’s territory, Ash said. USAID, meanwhile, needs to think about the type of expertise it is able to employ, and perhaps consider “a really big shift in thinking” away from strict technical service delivery and toward “much more sophisticated analysis of political economies” and engagement with countries’ policy environments, she added.

U.S. foreign affairs agencies do not have the capacity to fulfill those missions at the moment, Ash said, adding, “If the agencies continue to say, ‘no it’s fine, we just need to make some tweaks’ … we end up marginalizing ourselves.”

The challenge for the QDDR’s architects will be to “demonstrate in ways that can’t be denied the difference between your ambition and your performance,” Ash said, and then create buy-in for those changes to take place in ways that don’t immediately threaten the status quo.

5. Will Tom Perriello take the reigns at USAID?

While the contents of the QDDR will no doubt provide plenty of room for debate, the man tapped to lead the effort, Tom Perriello, has received near-universal praise for his leadership of the review process.

“I cannot say enough good things about him,” Dunning told Devex.

Ingram noted that he’s been “very impressed with the way [the QDDR process has] been conducted this time.”

The accolades Perriello has received from around the development community have left many wondering what’s next for the young former representative from Virginia, who Secretary of State John Kerry appointed special representative for the QDDR, a temporary post.

Perriello has spent the last year generating ideas and buy-in from a broad range of development professionals, interagency leaders, lawmakers and analysts, and he’s been tasked with putting together an implementable plan for the Obama administration’s closing act of development policy.

Will Obama tap Perriello to put that plan into action?

The former congressman’s intensive engagement with the foreign aid world over the past year, during which he’s grappled with strategic and tactical challenges facing U.S. global development policy and practice, has led many — including Devex — to wonder if Obama might nominate Perriello to be the next USAID administrator. After a year navigating the hazards of an interagency strategy review, Perriello might be one of the only people for whom the role of USAID chief would come as a welcome relief.

Devex, in partnership with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, is exploring the progress and potential of making U.S. foreign assistance more effective. To explore additional content, visit the Reform for Results website and tweet #Reform4Results.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.