At the creation: Brian Atwood and OTI’s enduring legacy

Brian Atwood, former USAID administrator. Photo by: Herve Cortinat / OECD / CC BY-NC-ND 

Twenty years ago the history of development changed for the better.

The creation of the Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development provided the government with a new tool to address complex emergencies that arose with the end of the Cold War. This office, the creation of Brian Atwood, USAID’s administrator during the Clinton administration, filled an important gap that neither humanitarian assistance nor traditional development programs could address.

Convincing Congress to put resources into a tiny office that would help respond to the political development needs in post-conflict situations was no small accomplishment. Not only did Atwood find a way to gain political support on Capitol Hill for this new type of assistance program, but he also had to win over skeptics at USAID who were at first reluctant about this new approach. Atwood provided the requisite political cover in the bureaucracy and a fresh approach to managing transitions was born. That OTI is now considered the go-to resource for managing ongoing crises of the 21st century is testimony to Atwood’s vision during his tenure at USAID.

Transition initiatives are really a hybrid of humanitarian response and development programming compressed into a very short timeline. Unlike quick-impact projects that are used in humanitarian operations, transition programs have a clear political dimension: to improve the legitimacy of state actors and to empower citizens whose lives had been torn apart by conflict. This new type of programming would be rapid, flexible and catalytic in accelerating tangible changes that citizens could see in a short time. OTI was able to operate in very dynamic political environments, providing appropriate and timely responses to conditions on the ground.

OTI brought new concepts into the development lexicon: ripeness and transition windows. Specifically, OTI applied the concept of ripeness to its implementation stage, meaning that investment of resources in a place that was not ready for assistance would never reap results. Similarly, the concept of a transition window evolved to mean that there was only a limited time frame to prevent further disaster. This was reinforced from many experiences of the post-Cold War; there were precious golden hours when aid could turn the tide of community stability if the appropriate types of interventions were coordinated and addressed to the central grievances of citizens in a community.

A review of OTI’s first decade prepared by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard concluded, “OTIs strongest overall legacy is primarily what it has done to empower stakeholders … OTI’s particular legacies of success, country by country, are less important than what it has done to develop disparate citizenries who now … have the necessary tools and a renewed impetus, to look after themselves.”

OTI’s approach to transition situations also had an international impact as other donor countries took up the model of a post-conflict unit in their development agency or foreign ministry. Similarly, the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program added staff and resources to support activities that would quickly address the needs of countries emerging from war. These, too, were part of Atwood’s legacy to the development world.

Of course, any new program is the work of many, and we would be remiss to ignore the hundreds of people who have worked for OTI since 1994. Its first director, Rick Barton, went on to head the U.S. Department of State’s first Bureau for Consolidation and Stabilization. Former Assistant Administrator Doug Stafford, the head of the Bureau for Humanitarian Response, as it was called in 1994, was willing to take the risk that this development gap was worth fighting for. And others who worked there continue to be part of an expanding network of field practitioners who know how to get things done in the most difficult environments.

The Office of Transition Initiatives has evolved over the past 20 years. From a small $20 million line in the USAID budget, today it boasts resources from a Transition Initiatives Account that Congress established in 2001. This account is testimony to the trust of lawmakers who recognize that rapid civilian response capacity was needed to support the United States in unstable countries critical to our national interests.

OTI’s presence in Afghanistan, its pioneering work with gangs and youth in Honduras, its support for the transition in Myanmar, and its efforts to help South Sudan move ahead as the newest African state are all examples where OTI has made a difference. It has also invested in recovery efforts in places like Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004 and post-earthquake Haiti in 2010. These cases have reinforced the utility of short-term development interventions that are powered by the decision of local residents, albeit fueled in part by U.S. dollars.

What best reflects the enduring vision of OTI’s creator, Brian Atwood, is the mission statement that remains at the core of all its work: to help local partners advance peace and democracy in priority conflict-prone countries. Seizing critical windows of opportunity, OTI works on the ground to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key transition needs. After 20 years this belief in the power of democratic governance as the most effective way to build peace is never lost on those who work to help fragile states make the transition to politically sustainable partners in a complex and dynamic global system.

What do you think are OTI’s biggest successes and failures over the years? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Johanna Mendelson Forman

    Johanna is a scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and a senior advisor with the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries Initiative. She helped to found USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and served in a variety of high-level functions within the U.S. government, World Bank and U.N. Foundation, among others. Most recently, she co-directed the Center for Strategic and International Studies' post-conflict reconstruction project.