Answering the next great challenges in international development

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Food Program distribute rice in West Point, Liberia, one of the West African countries that has been affected by the Ebola epidemic. Health systems strengthening, food security and youth employment are just some of the biggest challenges the next USAID administrator would face. Photo by: Morgana Wingard / USAID / CC BY-NC

U.S. foreign assistance programs help developing nations improve the health, education and economic conditions of their citizens, and in so doing build a more prosperous and secure world.

Rajiv Shah, who recently stepped down as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, deserves strong praise for positioning the organization to meet the development challenges of the future by prioritizing innovation, partnerships and measurable results, and by increasing bipartisan support for its important programs. As a new administrator takes the reins, there is no shortage of rising challenges vying for his or her attention. Several stand out as particularly important.

The Ebola crisis underscores the need to strengthen health systems in lower-income countries and improve global capabilities to rapidly respond to public health emergencies. At the same time, we must keep sight of a far subtler threat: the increasing prevalence of noncommunicable diseases.

A study by the Council on Foreign Relations found that NCDs like diabetes, cancer and heart disease are causing significant increases in morbidity and mortality in the developing world. This trend is further straining fragile health systems that still struggle to fight infectious diseases and improve child survival rates; lower and middle-income countries cannot afford to adopt the rich country response model. Stemming the tide will require behavioral changes at the individual level and systemic reforms to improve prevention and reduce treatment costs.

The greatest food security challenge we will face in the coming years is providing enough supply for growing populations without harming the environment or degrading the water supply.

Demand for food is set to explode due to rising incomes, changing diets and a global population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. At the same time, food production will be challenged by climate change and limits on land that is easy to farm. Achieving the needed increase will require adaptation to climate change and adoption of practices that minimize the footprint of food production and distribution and improve efficiency.

Youth employment is another hot-button issue, with 60 percent of youths in developing countries lacking steady employment. Provided with adequate opportunities, the rising workforces of developing nations could spur untold progress in development. Conversely, the absence of opportunity will foment desperation and instability, reversing gains and playing into the hands of criminal and extremist elements. Solving the crisis will require aligning higher education and skills development programs with private-sector needs at local, regional and national levels.

Are we prepared to tackle these challenges?

Foreign aid accounts for around 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, which seems small compared with the tasks before us. But what might be lacked in quantity can be made up in efficiency and innovation.

USAID and its implementing partners are now utilizing more and better data to not only track results, but more thoroughly analyze what’s working and what isn’t.

For instance, education programs used to focus on achieving what they could best measure — increased school enrollment and numbers of teachers trained. While attendance did improve, learning outcomes did not.

New data acquisition and assessment tools are providing the means to track students’ progress in reading and math, allowing educators and policymakers to pinpoint where and why learning stalled and adapt materials, techniques and strategies accordingly. This kind of rigorous assessment is now becoming standard in nationwide education programs in several developing countries, and yielding drastically improved learning outcomes.

Such advancements illustrate the promise of applying improved data to the management of sectoral issues, overall, in a “data revolution for development.” September’s U.N. Special Summit on Sustainable Development, where world leaders will confirm a new set of goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, is an important crossroads for setting an agenda that properly leverages all of the new knowledge and capabilities at our fingertips.

While the challenges before us are great, our ever-improving capabilities to understand and respond are reasons for optimism for the next USAID administrator and all of us.

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About the author

  • Aaron Williams

    Aaron Williams is executive vice president of the International Development Group at RTI International. He served as Peace Corps director from 2009 to 2012, and as vice president of international business development for RTI from 2003 to 2009. Before joining RTI, Williams served as a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development.