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Why USAID’s New Approach to

Development Assistance Is Stalled



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.