USAID needs to increase agility in conflict environments, official says

Robert Jenkins, assistant administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. Photo by: CSIS / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — U.S. foreign assistance agencies must learn how to be more agile in executing and then evaluating the effectiveness of programming in conflict environments, said U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Robert Jenkins.

“We need to challenge ourselves as a government to come up with plans, implement them, and then adapt them at least half as fast as the bad guys.”

— Robert Jenkins, assistant administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, USAID

“There are a few things maybe that we don’t do very well. One of them is admitting something isn’t working, and two, acting and moving at the speed of relevance,” Jenkins said on Thursday at a Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations event at the State Department.

“We need to challenge ourselves as a government to come up with plans, implement them, and then adapt them at least half as fast as the bad guys. They don’t have an interagency system of meetings and papers.”

Jenkins said the current bureaucratic process of developing USAID’s five-year country development cooperation plans doesn’t allow the agency to be able to evaluate programming in real-time and adapt if something is not working as intended or if conditions on the ground have shifted since a program was conceived.

“It takes about two years to come up with a five-year plan. It takes about two and a half years to put your five-year contract in place. That’s not going to get us to where we need to go,” Jenkins said. “Twenty years of targeting and trying to deter has not got us to where we need to be.

“An argument could be made that overfocus on short-term, heavy-handed, let’s-get-this-done-fast thing might be one of the reasons we have this proliferation of nonstate actors that we’ve never had before,” Jenkins added.

As part of USAID’s transformation, the agency’s conflict and prevention activities are being separated from humanitarian assistance into a standalone Bureau of Conflict and Prevention. Jenkins said his team has been empowered by USAID Administrator Mark Green to design a new way of working that is better adapted to the rapid pace of change around the world in many conflict environments, and to try to eliminate bureaucratic processes that prevent agility.

The creation of the new bureau — for which Jenkins would dub “imperfect solutions to intractable problems” as an unofficial tagline — elevates conflict and prevention activities. But the USAID transformation and high-level agency buy-in won’t automatically remove roadblocks, he cautioned.

“We deal with the world that we live in and not the world that we want, and that includes within the bureaucracy,” Jenkins said.

“It’s about trying to have USAID learn from the many hard-fought lessons — positive and negative — of the past of how to work in these environments so that we can provide a mission director everything she or he needs as conflict is coming to help prevent it, to deal with it if they’re in it, or to recover from it,” Jenkins continued.

In the field, teams often face security environments in a post-Benghazi era that severely constrain their ability to “get outside the wire,” Jenkins said. This makes it harder to know when conflict may be simmering, what interventions may be needed, and how currently operating programs need to be adapted to be more effective.

Complicated legal issues can also prevent effectiveness in conflict contexts, Jenkins said. Lack of clarity on U.S. government regulation dictating which parties USAID can and cannot work with in a conflict can prevent productive and practical engagement with necessary actors to advance peace.

“These places are murky, these places are confused, they are complex. That is exactly why we’re there and why we have to try to figure it out. The very difficulty that they pose is the reason we have to be there,” Jenkins said.

“We’ve understood we haven’t been doing it right. We’ve been trying enough that we now know the real challenges we have to overcome.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.