USAID kit sets and emergency supplies. Photo by: Ellie Van Houtte / USAID / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — Since his first day in office, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green has repeatedly emphasized his belief that the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist.

In practical terms, that has translated into a new policy framework at USAID that focuses on a “journey to self-reliance” — the idea being that U.S. assistance should focus on helping countries along that journey, measured by new indicators the agency released last year. Many in the U.S. development community have welcomed Green’s ability to articulate a message that has, at least in part, helped shield U.S. development programs from the Trump administration’s general skepticism about their value.

But not everyone thinks “self-reliance” is the best way of thinking about what U.S. development engagement can and should achieve.

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Last month, Matthew Kavanagh, a professor at Georgetown University, tweeted, “‘The Journey to Self Reliance’ as a concept for development shows such a remarkable lack of historical understanding, context, and self-reflection I just kindof cant deal.”

Given that Green’s tenure and policy vision has garnered mostly positive reviews in the U.S. development community, Devex reached out to Kavanagh to hear more about why he takes issue with the self-reliance framework.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

What do you see as the problem with engaging countries in an effort to help them become self-reliant?

In recent years we've set some far bolder goals than just the elimination of the most extreme forms of poverty. The [Sustainable Development Goals] represent that. Much of my work is in HIV — we've set the goal of ending the AIDS pandemic. That's a big, difficult goal that establishes some very ambitious ideas that run counter to the idea that countries will just transition off of needing aid.

“USAID is being far more thoughtful than just saying there's a middle-income country threshold cut off.”

— Matthew Kavanagh, professor, Georgetown University

Even more important, I think the idea of transitioning off of aid ignores critical ideas about inequality. Middle-income countries may reach a certain threshold of income but that can often mask the continuation of important vulnerabilities — for example, LGBT people, or young women, or refugees — others who may be hidden behind these aggregate ideas of increased income. And so if self-sufficiency means leaving behind the marginalized then that's a problematic development paradigm that deserves challenge.

I think that USAID is being far more thoughtful than just saying there's a middle-income country threshold cut off. But I don't think we've reached the complexity that we need to understand how aid flows and where it matters.

The alternative to self-reliance, I suppose, would be reliance on donors, and that doesn't seem like a particularly great alternative.

To give real credit where credit is due, I'm not accusing USAID of being simplistic here. I actually think they're doing a whole bunch of work to avoid just having middle-income country threshold cut-offs, and in that way have been better than, for example, some of the Global Fund decisions that have been made, and other places.

To me the alternative to self-reliance is interdependence. This idea that somehow countries are hermetically sealed entities that can somehow say, "OK, now we are self-reliant," I think misrepresents how the global economy works. To imagine that the United States is self-reliant would, for example, eliminate the fact that we actually have massive inflows of wealth from the global south into the United States.

The core question to me is more one of equity. If we understand the global economy to be complex and interdependent and we look writ large and see major inequities between countries in terms of well-being that people can achieve, then that suggests there's a continued and urgent moral need to provide for international financing to address those inequalities.

What would be a better mental framework for striving to achieve the kinds of goals that you're talking about?

There's a “journey to the end of major pandemics.” There's a “journey to the end of massive inequality between countries.” There's a “journey to universal health coverage,” for example. A variety of different journeys have been set out, and none of them are particularly about self-reliance.

HIV is a good example. If we increasingly restrict aid only to the lowest-income countries, then we would cut out South Africa tomorrow, and in fact, there have been proposals to do so under President Obama. This is not just a Republican-Democrat thing, I want to be clear.

President Obama pushed — initially, under Secretary Clinton — to say, "South Africa has reached a certain level of development. They no longer need our help on HIV.” That was a real misunderstanding. That was an idea that somehow South Africa was going to be able to cope with the biggest HIV epidemic in the world with a weak health system that was still digging out of the legacies of apartheid. It was laughable to those who were closely following, and that proved right.

“This idea that there is a subset of ‘wealthy countries,’ there's a subset of ‘poor countries’ — that idea is being challenged.”

[Since then], they've put a whole bunch more money into South Africa, because the core understanding is — a. the South African epidemic is far too big for the South African government to handle alone. There is a global moral imperative to help address this real crisis that's affecting South Africans, and b. we're also talking about infectious disease, and you don't get control of the HIV pandemic by imagining that countries are going to be hermetically sealed somehow where infectious diseases don't cross borders.

So recognizing this reality that the majority of people living in poverty now live in middle-income countries requires that we think about what are the ways in which the goals that we've all agreed to meet require financing that crosses borders. That doesn't mean dependency. That means global cooperation to address key goals, and I think that's a key, key shift to understand.

It sounds like part of what you're pointing out is a tension between countries as the unit of analysis and diagnosis, versus broad, transboundary, even global problems that an agency such as USAID, and others, might try to ameliorate.

I guess I much more take people as the unit of analysis. If you're going to try to address malnutrition, well, India has been a middle-income country since 2007, but a third of malnourished people live in India. So you can't then look at the broad idea of a middle-income country, or a country that's doing well, or even a country that's got a space program, and say, we can address malnutrition.

Now, we could just say that there's no international obligation to those malnourished people. Those malnourished people are only the obligation of their own government. But I don't think that's what justice looks like. I don't think that's what development looks like, and I don't think that's what a global commitment looks like.

Do you have a sense of what's politically attractive about framing development around self-reliance?

We are undeniably in an era of populism, not just in the United States but around the world. Along with that comes the idea that there is a trajectory toward success and that it's unidirectional. And within that, the idea of justice doesn't fit very well. But what does fit very well is the idea that we will somehow be done — that there will be an opportunity to do development, but that we will be done, we will be able to stop.

In the United States, and especially in the current era, the idea of long term continuing obligations to the world is not a very popular one, and certainly, this administration has not been focused on the U.S. as an international actor with obligations.

This idea that there is a subset of “wealthy countries,” there's a subset of "poor countries" — that idea is being challenged, and it does suggest we need a new paradigm.

To me, that paradigm is not self-reliance. That paradigm is interdependence, and how do we think about equity-focused international financing that could address these big goals that we've set out on the international stage that are bolder, actually, than what they replaced in the MDGs — but the financing isn't matching it.

About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.