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Reflections on a USAID Development Journey #7: Final Short Thoughts

Dec 04, 2023
Tony Pryor

Introduction to these informal notes

On Halloween 2022, I retired from working with USAID after almost 40 years, as a technical officer, a Project Design Officer and supporting the Agency in what was the former Bureau of Policy and Program Coordination (PPC) and then the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL).  I also had a lot of fun working on renewable energy programs as well as Natural Resource Management (NRM) policy programs throughout Africa, as well as part of the reengineering team developing the Agency’s programming guidance and co-designed the Results Framework.  I also had a  lot  of work on training, knowledge management and a wide range of other things.  

One of my most fun jobs over the last several years has been working with a number of the PPL Communities of Practice (COPs), including the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting COP and the Program Cycle Implementation COP, which are internal knowledge sharing spaces for USAID staff.  I decided to leave by summarizing some of my thoughts over the…decades, through a series of posts. Here are the posts, with just some irrelevant timing logistics deleted and grammar and typos corrected, as well as reducing the level of USAID-centric situations and acronyms. 

Please remember that they are informal posts, and represent my personal perspective, and do not represent USAID policy.

I wanted to flag some final short points which have struck me over the years.  This is also pretty long since I am splicing together some of the ideas I had been writing anyway but hadn't turned them into individual notes.

The danger in lumping so many ideas into one email is that the responses may be hard to follow.  So please refer to the topic if you do!  So let's dig in (albeit only in about a centimeter or 2).

There are many ways the Agency has improved its systems over the years, in particular through the Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) focus, and a broader emphasis on development not being as linear as we once assumed. We also have repaired much of the damage done from the hollowing out of our staff levels and skills from 1994 to about 2005, but still have some ways to go (if only due to the need for experience to mature over time. You cannot force an oak tree to grow quickly after all; it takes what it takes).

Our business model has also adapted somewhat, but I find that we are a bit more focused on mechanisms than on broader developmental change. This means that we get ourselves in less trouble in terms of audit and control, but I am concerned about losing track of the bigger picture, especially in that middle space between the specific interventions and the Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS).

We still do not sufficiently value the role of USAID staff as development actors and influencers, and not just contract and grant managers. This is not to discount the importance of improving the professionalism of Contract and Agreement Officer Representatives, it's just gently suggesting that development is not only about grants and contracts. We had carried out a series of interviews on this issue a year or so ago, but I was unable to write them up. Hopefully this will still happen after I am gone, but just in case here's, some of the main learning nuggets from those interviews:  

  • The more senior one gets in USAID at a leadership or technical level, the more the focus shifts to influencing others, including at the Embassy, the rest of the interagency and with partner country senior leaders.
  • When we program funds, we tend to assume that staff are fungible and don't put value on people's skills in facilitation, local language skills, or overall trust and experience. This is a common organizational problem, not just USAID's, but our business model, which sees us as being primarily managers of awards, makes this a significant issue.
  • The interviewees uniformly felt that while we were doing a better job building skills as acquisition and assistance managers, but we were not really putting in the time needed to improve skills needed to influence others and to be true development thought (and deed) leaders. We assume, I think, that these are not really learnable skills or worth putting a focus on. Ironically, we used to do this a bit better when we were doing policy reform programs. I found in those years some care was taken in personnel selection with those skills in mind.
  • Many did not see this as either/or, that it was not a case of ONLY focusing on award design and management or ONLY focusing on, if you will, development diplomacy and influence. For some, awards were a useful supplement to the larger task of influencing change, and for others it was the reverse - being able to influence and provide intellectual leadership was a useful supplement to contract and grant management. But few technical office leads we talked to viewed these skills as being a waste of time, and some viewed these as central to why we are overseas.
  • This focus on leverage seems to be strongest in the democracy and governance space, in non-permissive environments, or where we are a "small player" in terms of program dollars. And also in those countries carrying out massive humanitarian assistance and some development assistance programming.

While many of the ways we used to work are no longer very relevant, it is noteworthy that we now spend less time assessing the impact of our programs on sustainability (worrying about such things as salary supplements or recurring costs) than we had done say 15 years ago. Worth asking what happens after our money stops. We often do not look at the recurring costs, NOT of our programs, but of the development space after we are done and our contractors and grantees leave. I suggest focus should not just be on "was our money effectively spent" but "is the change that occurred sustainable and does it continue without us."

It's clear that what we view as small is not often all that small for our recipients/partners. This is particularly true for localization efforts. I suggest being careful not to fall victim to the idea that since the work needed to manage a small $100,000 grant may seem to be as much as a $10,000,000 grant, we should focus solely on "the bigger the better" mentality, based on the notion that it is more cost effective in terms of our time to manage one large grant. The problem is: what is small for us may be impossible to absorb for a small entity. It's not just about OUR cost effectiveness but the cost effectiveness for the entity we are assisting. There is no easy fix, although grants under contracts, grants under grants and other innovative mechanisms do help, but examining realistically the institutional, organizational and even socio-cultural impact of our investments might be worth doing.

It isn't always about the money. More money does not necessarily lead to more impact. A very extreme example: in the md-1980s in Madagascar there was a serious macroeconomic and poverty issue flowing from the government's tight control of the importation, price and availability of rice. All sorts of ideas were developed for addressing this, usually through the allocation of some sort of massive policy reform or technical assistance effort, but someone noted that the cost of one study from a think tank in Boston directed at the Government's leadership was enough to change their thinking. A good idea logically presented (costing about $80,000 or so, if I remember) was worth much more than a year or more of a design of some large program. And it was worth more because it was seen to be the Malagasy's decision, not something our investments were forcing.  There are other examples out there, but just one for now!

It also takes time to build capacity, or to make people feel that an action is theirs and not ours, far more time than we usually build into the activity, but which can't be cut short.  I remember for our small little microhydro rice mill in Madagascar, our technical team and mission leadership were getting concerned that it was taking months and months and months for the local community to negotiate and sign a simple agreement between each other on management and ownership.  I even remember our tech expert writing something down saying, "come on, let's get going!  I have another gig in Nepal." But the response from the villagers was essentially “it will take what it will take.” It's not a question of writing, it's a question of forging an agreement among people that will be trusted.

There is not just one path to get to a destination. In part because of our business model, we tend to work hard at thinking through approaches to a solution, but then once we pick one we stay with it. I remember an aggie in Senegal once decades ago noted to his leadership that the approach the mission decided to follow was logical and reasonable, but it was NOT the only way that had been put forward. And in this case, one other alternative was being followed by another donor. His suggestion: let's monitor that approach too; maybe they are right? Or maybe neither is right, but we should at least keep an open mind. Our design lag times and procurement process do not tend to lead us to being humble about our path chosen (and frankly it's just human nature and hard to address), but it's a tendency worth looking at. And it is not just a question of humility but a question of realizing that development is actually REALLY complicated, much of it in fact is hard to predict, and we CONTROL VERY LITTLE. This problem is not unique to USAID; you see it among almost all donors.

We do a very good job training people to do individual jobs and to supervise, but we are remarkably weak on training people to work in teams and be leaders.  (Again, not a problem limited to USAID). For some reason I think we feel that teams and teamwork are somehow flabby. As someone explained, "like a school of fish, everyone doing the same thing." In a place like the U.S. Army or the Marines (decidedly NOT flabby), they start from the beginning focusing on teams and leadership, with everyone playing a defined and clear role. You simply don't see that valued as much in USAID. (And by the way, it is that lack of team mentality within USAID which struck my Army knowledge management colleagues as most odd and a major way we differed from them operationally). We often reward and recognize individual performance, not team performance (except in extreme circumstances such as responding to an earthquake). Not sure where that comes from, possibly a holdover from the State Foreign Service Officer focus on the individual, but it is not always a good thing.

One quick example, again from Madagascar. I went there in the late 1990s to do a training course on ADS 201 and used a local facilitator to help me. As an "icebreaker" she had each person introduce each other, but with a twist: she asked everyone to identify someone who was critical to their success. Most of the American staff selected a co-worker in their office or a supervisor, but every Foreign Service National to a person picked somebody in a totally different part of the mission, such as an agriculture officer selecting a financial management person, etc. Interesting dynamics.

CLA and KM are now ubiquitous throughout USAID, but primarily seen as internal processes and ways of thinking, but NOT necessarily as developmental processes/results. There are a few examples within the CLA Case Competitions, but even there, the focus is on using CLA principles and practices to improve the way we work and work with partners. But less frequently is the point of the intervention to make sure the implementing partners, the entities within the country and the people themselves collaborate, learn and adapt. This is understandably hard but worth doing I think. Having CLA be a development result in its own right.

And lastly, we should value thinking about the logic of development, not just monitoring it. Development is at the end an art form, not a science experiment or a rocket launch. (I KNOW I will get in trouble for that comment!).

That's all, other than a few personal thoughts:

  • My favorite job in USAID was as a Project Development Officer (PDO). I understand why we felt we had to cut out a lot of PDO slots, and then finally merge other positions, but if you never were a PDO, you don't know what you missed...!
  • The courses we used to teach on applied development theory.  We no longer provide technical training except for some specific sector work.  It's a shame since it just reinforces the emphasis on process and mechanics over content.  It's hard (he says frankly but quietly) to think of ourselves as a development leader without an emphasis on applied development learning
  • Don't undervalue what we can learn from the military or the private sector.

And finally, a word to the wise from Rufus Philipps, a very very early USAID employee (1961) who wrote a book on lessons not learned from Vietnam, and was asked to go back to Afghanistan by the Army in his 80s to see what could be learned. One key lesson that he told me was as appropriate for USAID as for the Army: both groups misunderstood what ‘handover notes’ mean. It's not about handing over facts but handing over trust. As I finish my handovers, this idea seems pretty relevant.

About the authors
Tony Pryor

Tony Pryor worked with USAID for almost 40 years, as a technical officer, a Project Design Officer and supporting the Agency in what was the former Bureau of Policy and Program Coordination (PPC) and then the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL). The last several years before leaving USAID, Tony worked with PPL Communities of Practice (COPs), including the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting COP and the Program Cycle Implementation COP, which are internal knowledge sharing spaces for USAID staff.