Advisory Committee Recommends Major USAID Reforms

Change was in the air at the annual public meeting of the


The March 11

  brought together a group of representatives from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors of the U.S. development community to discuss the state of the

. In a wide-ranging discussion, committee members presented a bold set of recommendations that, if adopted, would fundamentally rework the way much of U.S. foreign assistance is administered.

Much of the discussion focused on what is to become of the

, which was created in 2006 to bring USAID more closely under the control of the

. The move prompted a major backlash by many who believed the top-down Washington administration was out of touch with the field. Panelists expressed their desire to give back USAID the authority to draft its own budget requests, rather than submitting joint proposals with the State Department. Some committee members also proposed that the agency be independently tasked with long-term strategic planning.

Though field staff have complained about the F Bureau since its inception, many panelists seemed to believe that Obama's ascent to power marks a prime opportunity for lasting reform.

"There has been such a loud reaction to the F bureau from the community that I think the administration is going to have to deal with it," remarked ACVFA Chair John Sullivan, who is also the executive director of the


The need to rethink contracting procedures also featured prominently on the reform agenda. Several panelists observed that while contracting may be a simple way to achieve many development projects, USAID now contracts out many functions that could be carried out more effectively by the agency itself.

Steven Radelet, senior fellow at the

, observed that while contractors may play a valuable role in implementing development projects, USAID has gone a step too far in contracting out essential management functions of the agency. He also urged the agency to become more directly involved in providing technical expertise, for instance, by sending USAID employees to act as technical advisors to a host country government rather than completely outsourcing the function to contractors.

Panelists were generally upbeat about USAID's recent hiring surge, and strongly affirmed that more staff are still needed. But

President Helene Gayle, encouraged fellow committee members not to become overly focused on the people who run the agency.

, a leading contender to head USAID, instead emphasized the need to put effective policies and procedures in place.

"We want to build something that outlives the people, no matter where we have a great secretary of state or a lousy one," she said.

In light of the ongoing financial crisis, committee members underlined the need to focus on poverty reduction.

"It's inconceivable to me how a development agency doesn't have a strategy for economic growth," Sullivan observed.

The committee advocates a plan to coordinate development projects across sectors, focusing more on engaging the "bottom of the pyramid" and less on top-down government reforms.

Panelists stressed that even though the government is well poised to enact reforms, change will not happen automatically. Gayle exhorted the development community to "ring that gong a little bit louder so that the urgency is there."

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