Rajiv Shah had called, and they came. Earlier this week, a cross-section of leaders from across the globe convened in Washington at the U.S. Agency for International Development chief’s invitation to talk aid.
At the top of everyone’s talking points: the need for innovative partnership. USAID itself launched two of them this week: a grant challenge on “powering agriculture” and a mobile money scheme with Citigroup, the financial giant.
The three-day conference, titled “Frontiers in Development,” no doubt was meant to showcase USAID’s ongoing reform efforts at a time when the development community is struggling to convince thrifty lawmakers that their work maximizes value for money. And indeed, USAID presented itself as a reinvigorated, innovative agency that leverages global partnerships to achieve results.
The event was held during a tough election year for the Obama administration and amid speculation that several architects of his foreign aid strategy — including Shah and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — may not stick around should Obama win another term.
While the future of the agency’s leadership might be in doubt, the star-studded panels and keynote speakers were clear on the importance of capacity building and innovative, cross-sector partnership.
That word — innovation — was everywhere, so much so that some panelists wondered aloud if overuse had drained it of meaning.
Speakers agreed the private sector should get more involved in development initiatives. Does that include countries plagued by conflict and disaster, though?
Perhaps, Land O’Lakes President and CEO Chris Policinski said, noting that the private sector would likely not engage until traditional aid agencies had stabilized the situation, paving the way for the private sector to direct capital toward worthwhile projects.
Speakers noted the challenges inherent in cross-sector partnership as well as in funneling more money through in-country systems. Goals, procedures and accountability measures don’t always align.
International guests such as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, not surprisingly, praised donors for working to harmonize their agendas with recipient governments. Others had more critical words to say.
Atifete Jahjaga, the president of Kosovo, for instance, said foreign companies often come offering short-term solutions only. Emilia Pires, East Timor’s minister of finance, chided international nongovernmental organizations for sending high-paid technical advisers and poaching top local talent before criticizing the country’s lack of capacity.
Channeling money through country systems or other local actors is risky — but it’s a risk the aid industry should embrace, USAID Chief Economist Steve Radelet argued.
“Overall evidence shows that aid has a modest positive impact on development outcomes, with a lot of variance,” he said.
In a nutshell: Aid is not a silver bullet, and the actions of partner countries are more important.
“Development isn’t something that doesn’t happen unless we’re there,” said Gayle Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director at the National Security Council.
It was a curious — perhaps refreshingly honest — statement at an event meant to showcase the aid community’s role in foreign affairs.
Rolf Rosenkranz contributed reporting.