The prospects for a majority of people in the developing world have radically altered over the last 25 years. Never before has so much changed for so many. Average income doubled and female illiteracy declined by 50 percent. Six billion people gained access to cellphones and the percent of people living in extreme poverty dropped below 10 percent for the first time in recorded history.
As I leave an amazing five and a half years at USAID, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what our community has accomplished together, and the greatest challenges that still stand in the way of our aspirations. My biggest conclusion, from the meta-picture of development experience, is that what separates countries that are succeeding from those that are failing is capable, inclusive and accountable governance. When a political system supports the aspiration and perspiration of its people and is accountable to them, transformational development is possible, anywhere.
But in places where the many suffer for the power and avarice of the few, where personalities transcend institutions and the rule of law — the result is usually the opposite.
Where we remain blind to that central truth, we undermine civil society and effective institutions by reinforcing despotism, and our aid may subsidize precisely that which it is meant to overcome. But when we contribute to a cycle of empowerment, dignity and accountability, when we help underwrite the social contract between citizens and their government, we invest in the only sustainable path to the prosperity, dignity and freedom that everyone should demand and enjoy, the lottery of birth be damned.
As country after country has demonstrated, the path to ending extreme poverty and creating resilient, democratic societies is built upon a foundation of inclusive economic growth and effective, accountable institutions which are designed, led and primarily financed by local actors and resources. That’s why USAID changed our development model. We have more partners — public and private — bringing more to the table than ever before. And support for local partners has dramatically increased.
Development has also gotten smarter, transforming evaluations, evidence and data into key drivers of decision-making. U.S. policy increasingly embraces the premise that ending poverty and inequality are not nice-to-have outcomes, but integral to our national interest. As emphasized in the U.S. 2015 National Security Strategy, a world of healthy, educated, free people is one where commerce, international security, and American ideals thrive.
But it’s not all good news. There are 60 million displaced persons worldwide, the highest since World War II, and the political and humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq and Libya present challenges of yet unmeasured magnitude. Future catastrophes wrought by climate change will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us. And the extreme poor will increasingly be concentrated in fragile and failed states where pathways out are hardest to build and maintain.
So what is to be done?
We must put politics at the center of all we do. Not by tossing aside the tangible tools that have improved the lives of so many — whether bed nets or improved seeds — but by marrying short- and long-term effectiveness, service delivery and sustainability with a focus on political economy, transparency and the rule of law. We need to think and work politically, making sure that the implicit changes demanded by our mission to create open societies and economies becomes explicit and shared — that we are open about the change we seek.
We won’t succeed if we don’t deal with the causes and consequences of fragility — conflict, climate, corruption, and inequality. In my view, the pinnacle lesson from Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria is that long running crises that produce violence and extremism, will, left unchecked, result in shocks to the international system.
Maintaining a system of free, fair, open economies and peaceful societies is at the core of U.S. national interest in a multipolar world. But we have also learned that we are not very good at “regime-change” and “nation-building” in conflict environments. Too often we lack the partners, coordination, long-term perspective, and the risk tolerance needed to succeed in such environments.
To be more effective, we need to significantly increase our investment and capabilities in institution-building. The one iron law of development is local ownership. True development success is driven by local actors and leaders that are capable, inclusive and accountable.
Another fundamental change we must make is to institutionalize adaptive managementas our core operating model. We need the tools, evidence, leeway, and — most importantly — talent, to adapt our goals and approaches iteratively as planning meets reality, as situations change, and as we learn what’s working and why. We still need long-term plans and investment in stakeholder consultation, but we also need a flexible and transparent system that employs learning. And we need flexibility, and an approach that embraces risk and transparency in partnership with the Hill.
The foundation we have built is transforming development, but we will not end extreme poverty or stop climate change with more of the same. Our community must come together and celebrate the unambiguous progress of this generation, and challenge ourselves to new heights.
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Alex Thier is the incoming executive director of the Overseas Development Institute and the former chief of policy, planning and learning at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C.
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