THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Why USAID’s New Approach to
Development Assistance Is Stalled
BY THOMAS D I CHTER
uring the course of an indepen-
dent study financed indirectly
by the U.S. Agency for Inter-
national Development that
took me and my colleagues to 14 USAID
offices on three continents—with all but
three offices now located inside the U.S.
embassy grounds—it became clear how
insulated agency staff have become from
the countries in which they work. And this
is the case at a time when USAID is osten-
sibly committed to working more directly
with local organizations (and so begin-
ning the long-delayed process of “working
ourselves out of a job”).
TomDichter’s career in international development spans 50 years of life and work
in more than 60 developing countries. A Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco in the
early 1960s and, much later, a Peace Corps country director in Yemen, he was vice
president of TechnoServe, a program officer at the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva,
a researcher on development issues for the Hudson Institute and a consultant for many interna-
tional agencies, including the United Nations Development Program, the International Fund for
Agricultural Development, USAID, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, as well as
for the Austrian and Philippine governments. He is the author of
Despite Good Intentions: Why
Development Assistance to theThird World Has Failed
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2003)
and co-editor of
What’s Wrong with Microfinance?
(Practical Action Press, 2007).
Under former Administrator Rajiv
Shah’s USAID “Forward” reform program,
the agency set a goal of 30 percent of its
resources going to local organizations by
2015, including local governments, civil
society and firms in the private sector.
That goal was not met, and USAID now
refers to it as merely “aspirational.”
Besides the intention to redirect the
flow of money, the core of the Forward
agenda was a commitment to what was
called “local solutions” (now called
localworks) aimed at the establishment
of “close, personal working relationships”
with local governments, civil society and
the private sector. That commitment has
gained very little traction, despite the good
USAID’s growing isolation from the
countries it seeks to help leads to frustra-
tion on the part of many of its best people,
as well as engendering some disdain for
the “locals” who are less and less under-
stood. USAID needs to examine in depth
the various causes of this counterproduc-
tive trend. In the following discussion
of highlights from our findings, I outline
the problems and present some possible
Isolation and Frustration
In the overseas missions we visited,
with rare exception, USAID’s American
personnel formed very fewmeaning-
ful local relationships and tended to be
uninformed or misinformed about local
organizations and trends. Outside key
government ministries and well known
capital city–based organizations, they
had limited knowledge of who was who,
or what was going on in the rural areas—
not to mention an understanding of the
nuances of culture and social structure,
and the ways in which these affect the
country’s political economy.
Moving from post to post every three
or four years, USAID’s American person-
nel tend to make assumptions based on
past reports, talking with colleagues in
other aid agencies or interacting with a
few “usual suspects” in the capital cities.
Enthusiastic and bright new staff often
talked to us about their frustration.
Typical was this lament from a young
A black Chrysler pulls out of the gate of the U.S. embassy compound in Rabat followed
by a security detail in an SUV. My Moroccan colleague and I are walking down a public
sidewalk when a city policeman holds up his hand and signals us to stop while the two cars
pass. After they do, we start walking again, but the policeman waves us away.
“I’m sorry, but you cannot go this way,” he says.
“Why not?” we ask. He replies that the U.S. embassy does not allow walking on the part
of the street that faces the embassy gate.
(This is our country!),” my Moroccan colleague shouts. But the policeman has
his orders. He smiles apologetically and waves us to another street.