USAID not ditching mega-contracts, but looking for new options

The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center which houses the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Josh / CC BY-ND

WASHINGTON — The United States Agency for International Development’s new leadership team wants to expand the agency’s partner base and enhance creativity by incorporating more “co-creation” and collaboration into project design and award-making.

On Tuesday, the State Department and USAID released their “joint strategic plan” for 2018-2022. The document includes a pledge by USAID to, “realize greater returns on investment by using public-private partnerships and more adaptive and flexible procurement mechanisms to complement more traditional models for implementing foreign assistance.”

USAID Administrator Mark Green has highlighted procurement reform as a top priority and a key feature of the ongoing redesign effort the agency is undertaking in concert with the State Department. Green has repeatedly emphasized his desire to take advantage of a wider range of good ideas to help solve development challenges, with procurement tools that foster both open competition and outreach to the private sector.

A USAID official told Devex that the agency wants to make greater use of procurement tools that allow for a more collaborative process for designing projects and solutions. That likely means involving potential partners earlier in project design and being more proactive in identifying collaborators outside the pool of frequent contractors and grantees.

“I don’t think it is about moving away from any current mechanism that we have. There could be very good reasons for us to continue to use large contracts,” said the official, who spoke about ongoing internal reforms on background.

“The opportunity here is to expand the offerings and expand the way we approach this … We’re expanding our opportunities, not moving away from one mechanism or another,” the official said.

In the joint strategic plan, the agency set itself a Sept. 2019 target of increasing, “the use of collaborative partnering methods and co-creation within new awards, measured by dollars and percentage of procurement actions.” Those increases will be measured against a 2018 baseline that USAID still has to determine.

The USAID official also addressed recent reports about the agency temporarily suspending its involvement in the joint redesign process. Last month, The Hill reported that Jim Richardson, a USAID senior advisor leading the transition process, sent an email to members of the agency’s staff. "You should not work on any Joint Redesign activities," Richardson informed them.

While that directive raised eyebrows among some in the U.S. aid community who wondered if it signaled some kind of rupture between State and USAID, the official told Devex it was merely an “inartful attempt to communicate” that the agency was taking a pause to ensure the right people were in the right places to move into an implementation phase of the redesign.

“We just wanted to make sure as we entered this new phase we had clarity around the outcomes,” the official said.

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.