The pieces of President Barack Obama’s closing act on U.S. global development cooperation are quickly falling into place.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry launched the long-awaited Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which outlines priority areas and focal points for the U.S. government’s “smart power” agencies to address. And earlier this month, after much speculation, the White House nominated Gayle Smith to be the next U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, a position left vacant since Rajiv Shah’s departure in February.
Except for some vocal critics of her alleged overly accommodating approach to some less-than-free African states, Smith’s nomination has been widely applauded within the development community — but she still faces a tough confirmation process in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.
QDDR’s fate is more difficult to parse. The document could contribute to a blueprint for a focused, meaningful action in the final year and a half of the Obama administration’s global development agenda, or it could go largely ignored, falling prey to bureaucratic inertia and political risk aversion.
Supporters of the effort are driving home some key some messages about this second iteration of the strategic review process. Chief among them: “We did not try to touch on every issue,” Tom Perriello, special representative for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, told Devex.
Many felt the first QDDR reached too far in rhetoric and not far enough in action. That criticism seems to have taken hold. While then-Secretary of State HIllary Clinton described the first QDDR as, “a sweeping effort that asks a simple question: How can we do better?" Perriello told Devex the second iteration has taken a much narrower approach.
“[Kerry] asked from the very beginning for a focused document that picked a few things that we needed to do better on — or that we were doing well and we wanted to scale up,” Perriello said.
The U.S. government’s development agencies and their implementing partners are still coming to terms with a swathe of initiatives and reforms. Faced with — among many others — Feed the Future, USAID Forward, Power Africa and the Global Development Lab, U.S. development professionals complain of “initiative fatigue,” and QDDR’s purpose was not to add to that burgeoning list of reporting and programming requirements.
“These are not new ideas, and in fact one of the things we said from the beginning is we do not want to put a premium on newness over what’s right,” Perriello told Devex.
“This was a strategic review, not a strategic break,” he added.
Avoiding a race to the bottom?
Perriello’s team undertook a broad consultation process to distill a world of opinions into the 88-page document, and given the lengthy clearance process preceding its launch — as well as the territorial infighting that has plagued U.S. foreign affairs agencies in the past — one might worry the final document includes only those issues everyone can agree on.
“We believe that we avoided that,” Perriello told Devex.
With one issue in particular, Perriello said, his team sought to tackle something that was not “consensus-oriented” — the politically-charged questions surrounding personnel security and physical risk.
After the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the resulting death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, lawmakers have taken aim at the administration’s ability to protect overseas personnel. At the same time, development professionals and diplomats complain about “fortress embassies” and security procedures that bar them from interacting effectively with the populations they’re meant to serve — and understand.
What is missing, Perriello told Devex, is a “serious, transparent conversation about risk tolerance as well as risk management,” and QDDR seeks to initiate that conversation, with a “very strong statement that the mission comes first.”
“There is risk inherent in what we do in both diplomacy and development,” Perriello said.
“As we make judgements about where we’re going to be and how our officers in the field can operate, we are going to start with the premise that we are there to serve the American people,” he added.
QDDR will do more than start “serious, transparent conversations,” though, according to its architects. The document is supposed to amount to action — and action that can, at least in part, be carried out in the waning days of the current administration.
That does not mean this QDDR will wade as deeply into the waters of internal reforms as its predecessor — which many describe as a casualty of turf battles between State and USAID — did.
“We did a lot less of that than the last QDDR,” Perriello said, describing the first effort as “pretty bold” in its attempt to address internal reorganization.
The next few months will see a series of “implementation guidance” emerge from the QDDR team, Perriello said. While the first QDDR attempted to combine strategic priorities with details about how various reforms would look, Perriello said this time around the team has opted to “delineate a strategic direction,” and will work with relevant offices on implementation details.
The implementation process will also be somewhat different this time around, Perriello explained, because of the decision to “co-locate” responsibility for QDDR in Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom’s office. That decision, according to Perriello, will facilitate the implementation of changes like expanding pay without leave options and other human resources-related policies over which the State Department’s management and resources office holds sway.
Ultimately, implementation of new, or scaled-up ideas — like the proposed “Development Information Solution” at USAID — will depend, at least in part, on the resources available to pay for them. At the same time, Perriello told Devex he did not want the review to deteriorate into a wish list of things that could be done, if only U.S. foreign affairs agencies had more funding.
The QDDR team tried to “thread a needle,” Perriello said, between “not wanting to put out a report that says all of our problems are because we don’t have enough money,” and the fact that, “it is very hard to do many of the reforms and increase the capabilities that are needed for the world we currently face without additional resources.”
Resource questions remain up in the air, as Congress continues to hash out a new budget, but with funding for U.S. foreign assistance next year expected to be either flat or somewhat reduced, QDDR’s streamlined approach could be put to the test.
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Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.
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