USAID Administrator Mark Green has rightly declared that the mission of aid agencies, and I would add aid NGOs and other thought leaders, is to work ourselves out of business. To that end, he has initiated a process to transition countries off assistance, what USAID is calling the Journey to Self-Reliance.
For those of us who have advocated for our aid programs to be more selective and focused, this is welcome news. Others have expressed legitimate concerns lest the process is conducted without much forethought, careful implementation, or follow-up. The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a group I co-chair, has created a set of principles to guide the transition process that urges country ownership, transparency, and involvement of other actors such as the private sector. And others, such as CGD and CSIS, have weighed in with valuable insights for how we responsibly transition countries from aid.
Along with recommendations on principles that should guide transitions and metrics to track progress, Administrator Green asked the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Assistance to examine legacies (also called leave-behinds) that make up post-transition engagement. I had the privilege of serving as the chair of the legacies working group that contributed to the final report.
First, Administrator Green deserves credit for directing that legacies be considered in this report. What comes next needs to be taken into account concurrently or preferably before exiting or scaling back is even considered. However, there are still issues that USAID must address around engaging country stakeholders, confronting remaining development issues, and getting broader U.S. government buy-in.
Legacy programs should be specific to a country
Legacies can take various forms, but they should all be tailored to each country by working in cooperation with central and local governments, as well as civil society. Designing a legacy program should foster cooperation on innovative approaches and partnerships with new actors. The hope is that planners will not simply take what has been used in the past and try to match it to for a current use.
The list of possible legacies is long and includes: an enterprise fund; the maintenance of a USAID senior development officer to help coordinate with other actors; some other type of development finance institution; or the creation of an educational institution. In Costa Rica, for example, the U.S. helped establish EARTH University, which helps train developing country leaders from around the globe. They can also be an aid program focused on a problematic sector, such as strengthening civil society or building a stronger business environment.
Legacy programs can still address development challenges
Even as countries enter middle-income status, development challenges remain. As the U.S. works to transform existing economic relations with countries from a largely aid-based relationship to a fuller spectrum partnership, it is important to consider what type of legacy will remain on the development front. A legacy program or institution represents not just a valuable way to express the U.S. commitment but also to stay engaged in addressing these challenges. Two specific areas come to mind:
First, space for civic dialogue has been shrinking in many countries, and proponents of democracy have been silenced or pushed into submission. Organizations comprising civil society have been threatened and their legal underpinnings weakened. Any legacy must take into consideration the state of democracy, human rights, the status of civil society, and space for public dialogue. In order to stay engaged on these central facets of democracy, evidence of progress and remaining need should shape the legacy program.
Second, we need to continue to help build resilience. Middle-income countries can still be vulnerable to a sudden crisis or a faltering economy. A legacy institution is an opportunity to work with government actors and the private sector to build the political will and the financial underpinnings of resilience: regulatory reviews that make it easier to establish and maintain business; ways to adjust policies that are reflective of need and accountable to the public; the capacity to fairly and equitably build a taxation and budgeting system, to name just a few.
Legacy programs need buy-in across the US government
Transitioning out of a country should not be seen simply as a cost-saving enterprise for the U.S. There are costs to abruptly ending programs and pulling out personnel, and there are also costs associated with standing up legacy programs. Legacies should instead be seen as a key component to a new and evolving bilateral relationship. This is why it is critically important to understand the role of other U.S. government agencies in the transition process in general and also in legacy programs. The lack of buy-in from other agencies has thwarted transition plans in the past — a complex issue that deserves its own opinion piece.
We have witnessed previous attempts to withdraw our aid from countries only to find ourselves needing to return for one reason or another. These do not always reflect failures in the transition process, but may signal a failure in choosing the countries from which to transition or a lack of careful planning for how we chose to transition. The properly designed legacy goes a long way to helping countries stay firmly on their journeys to self-reliance.