Feed the Future — the U.S. Agency for International Development’s global food security initiative — has formed a working group tasked with finding ways to engage more effectively with civil society both at home and abroad.
At the official launch during the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid’s quarterly public meeting on Tuesday, industry leaders and interested individuals had a chance to share their views in the opening stages of an initiative that, some fear, lacks a clear mandate.
While little is yet known about the specific goals, focal areas, or even how the panel is defining “civil society,” working group members said they will produce an “action plan” structured around “very specific action items” for civil society engagement under Feed the Future by Sept. 18.
The U.S. government’s signature global hunger and food security initiative spans nine U.S. agencies, prompting some participants in the public meeting to worry about a perceived absence of firm funding commitments to ensure the working group’s recommendations can realistically amount to a whole-of-government platform for coordinated action.
Shah: USAID has ‘underperformed’ on communication
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah admitted the agency has so far “underperformed” its responsibility to clearly and transparently communicate programmatic priorities to the American public, especially building a domestic civil society movement in support of Feed the Future partnerships, and ending hunger.
Shah blamed USAID’s tendency to err on the side of caution when it comes to legal bans on domestic lobbying for the agency, and urged members of the working group to tackle the issue of how better to communicate a common message, in light of advocacy restrictions that are “far less encompassing than people realize.”
Members of the panel suggested the action plan address chronic messaging problems by ultimately structuring its recommendations around one or two high-profile, cross-cutting issues.
Bruce McNamer, working group co-chair and president and CEO of TechnoServe, hinted the “early betting” points to maternal and child nutrition as the administration focal area with the most momentum and highest likelihood of galvanizing civil society support.
U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized the need to better engage civil society groups in a broad range of new roles, as fiscal constraints and a “lack of political will” put pressure on USAID to scale back budgets and redefine its goals to maximize return on investment, McNamer noted.
USAID Forward and civil society
Under USAID Forward, the strategic umbrella reforms intended to restructure U.S. foreign assistance for more partnerships and greater leveraging of private funds, requests for proposals increasingly call for civil society organizations and NGOs in developing countries to act as project implementers, while civil society and NGO leaders ask for more sway as strategic partners in defining development goals.
At the same time, when official foreign assistance represents a dwindling percentage of the project funding pie, a domestic civil society committed to development issues can help to leverage private philanthropic and nongovernmental funding for USAID priority projects like Feed the Future.
Feed the Future’s new working group hopes it can make the way the initiative engages the entire range of civil society partners, both domestic and foreign, more “concrete.” But at the meeting, solid details about how the action plan will hold Feed the Future partners accountable for civil society engagement — whether by attaching itself to efforts in contracting procurement reform, or by unlocking current nutrition-related budgets under a single coordinated strategy — remained far off.
As its own members noted, the purpose of the event was not to declare its intentions, but open dialogue for goal-setting in order for the working group to hear from the very civil society partners it seeks to engage.
“We will know what success looks like, because we will say [at the outset] what success looks like,” said McNamer, pointing to the working group’s intention to set clear goals, based on the input it receives at the outset, and to own up to its success or failure in achieving them later on.
Challenges for the action plan
Some attendees wondered whether civil society partnerships abroad face hurdles that an action plan for engagement alone fails to address without wider engagement in policy issues and broader commitment to opening policy dialogue in partner countries.
For instance, questions surrounded the working group’s attention to the important role a supportive enabling environment plays in positioning civil society organizations as viable development partners in the first place.
Participants questioned the extent to which the action plan’s recommendations will address legal constraints on civil society organizations or capacity-building challenges in some of the countries with critical food security and hunger needs, where U.S. donors are looking to local organizations as potential implementing partners.
In his closing remarks at Wednesday’s meeting, Shah urged the working group to “tackle controversies” and build shared understanding in order to fulfill his aspiration that Feed the Future become an “open platform” that invites a wide range of participants to the cause of ending hunger.
The group has three months to achieve its goals, provided it determines what they will be.
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