Opinion: USAID needs an independent accountability office to improve development outcomes

A man inspects USAID-donated ventilators on their way to Indonesia in the fight against COVID-19. Photo by: Nalendro Photoworks / USAID

As always, and during this pandemic in particular, many are looking to the U.S. Agency for International Development for the U.S. response to global needs. Acting USAID Administrator John Barsa recently appeared before Congress to discuss foreign assistance priorities for the next fiscal year. He answered questions related to cuts for USAID in the administration’s proposed budget and USAID’s efforts to support the development of an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

What was not discussed — but should be a top priority — is a key outstanding congressional directive to USAID to strengthen accountability for its development activities. The congressional directive creates an opportunity for USAID, and for those concerned with whether USAID’s programs are meeting their objectives, to take overdue action to ensure that the agency understands whether taxpayer money has met its mark.

In response to reports of human rights abuses tied to USAID’s support of certain conservation projects, including allegations of torture and rape by ecoguards, Congress, in its explanatory statement for the fiscal year 2020 appropriations legislation, directed USAID to work with its implementers to prevent these abuses from reoccurring.

Further, Congress called on USAID to ensure that “effective grievance and redress mechanisms for victims of human rights violations and other misconduct exist.”

Public information on USAID’s response is not currently available, but as USAID sets its course for the fiscal year ahead, it should prioritize addressing this congressional directive. From our experience supporting communities impacted by development projects, we recommend that USAID create an agency-level independent accountability office to do so.

First created by the World Bank, accountability offices are community feedback tools that address complaints from project-impacted people by either conducting a compliance review to see if environmental and social policies were properly followed in the course of a project or convening a bespoke dispute resolution process between the communities, clients, and other parties.

Accountability offices are housed within the very institutions they hold accountable and are given sufficient independence from management to be credible.

The experiences of communities in Haiti forced from their farmland in 2011 to make way for the Caracol Industrial Park, a large industrial facility financed by USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others, demonstrates the importance of accountability offices — and USAID’s current accountability gap. In addition to taking 250 hectares of the most fertile agricultural land in the area, the park has had negative environmental impacts, including significant pollution from the USAID-financed power plant within the park.

After trying to address their issues with the industrial park through various channels, the communities filed a complaint to IDB’s accountability office, also known as MICI, in 2017 to address harm related to IDB’s involvement in the project.

MICI facilitated a dialogue process between the communities, the Haitian government, and IDB, which resulted in a historic agreement to replace farmland and restore livelihoods.

Unfortunately, the affected communities have not had the same opportunity to address grievances with USAID, as it lacks an accountability office, and many of the environmental challenges posed by the industrial park and its associated facilities remain unresolved.

To be truly effective, USAID should ensure that its accountability office applies to all of its projects and not just its conservation work.  

Although USAID's conservation projects sparked congressional action, it is indisputable that negative impacts can result from other projects as well. Data from the Accountability Console, a comprehensive database of accountability office complaints, reveals that grievances can arise in a range of sectors, from infrastructure projects to education programs, and across financial instruments.

It would also be a mistake for USAID to respond to the directive by pushing its obligation down to implementing partners.

Although implementing partners could address certain discrete issues at the project level, the agency needs to know about — and have a hand in addressing — environmental and social non-compliance.

Opinion: No sunshine — DFC limits transparency when it is needed most

As the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation ramps up its work, transparency and stakeholder engagement must be prioritized. According to this op-ed, this is the only way the DFC can be the effective and responsible development finance institution that it aims to be.

In addition to addressing grievances, institution-wide accountability offices provide lessons from cases to ensure that future projects are more sustainable. Plus, that decision would put USAID out of step with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which has an accountability office — as did its predecessor, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — as well as other bilateral aid agencies with accountability offices, like in France and Japan.

An independent accountability office would also be a fundamental component of USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance strategy, as it would amplify the voice of the very people impacted by USAID’s projects.

Unaddressed grievances can undermine a project’s sustainability and lead to conflict, affecting a country’s ability to transition effectively from international aid. An accountability office would only further USAID’s existing commitment to seeing local solutions through “effectively, inclusively, and with accountability.”

The COVID-19 crisis has been a shock to the global system, with development institutions responding rapidly to address the health and economic impacts. USAID has a role to play in the response and should know whether its money meets its mark.

By creating an accountability office now, USAID can be well-positioned to ensure its projects — including those addressing the pandemic — avoid harm and achieve their intended impact.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Margaux Day

    Margaux Day is the policy director of Accountability Counsel, a global organization that works with communities around the world to defend their environmental and human rights through direct case support, policy advocacy, and research. Margaux leads the organization’s work to ensure that existing accountability offices are effective and to advocate for the creation of new accountability offices where they do not exist.
  • Stephanie Amoako

    Stephanie Amoako is a senior policy associate at Accountability Counsel, a global organization that works with communities around the world to defend their environmental and human rights through direct case support, policy advocacy, and research. She has extensive human rights and advocacy experience in the U.S. and around the world, including in Brazil and the Maldives.