Three things USAID can do today to increase impact
Forty-five days ago, we shared three ideas with USAID that it could adopt to prioritize innovation and accelerate impact. Today, we’re making those ideas public.
Dear Unlock Aid community,
Forty-five days ago, we shared three ideas with USAID that it could adopt to prioritize innovation and accelerate impact. Today, we’re making those ideas public, along with an implementation tracker.
Last November, Administrator Samantha Power outlined a bold vision for the future of global development. But time flies. Before we know it, the UN General Assembly, COP27, midterm elections, and a presidential election will be here. The window of opportunity is narrowing to enact major reforms.
We created Unlock Aid because we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the future of USAID and other global development institutions. Our three recommendations focus on actions USAID can take right now to: increase transparency; scale proven, evidence-based solutions; and bring in new players – and especially local actors – to deliver better outcomes. Given the urgency of this moment, we’ll be looking for USAID to:
make announcements of official policy changes and issue notices of proposed rulemaking by September 30, 2022;
show evidence of implementation for each item by December 31, 2022; and
fully implement each recommendation by September 30, 2023.
All of the below ideas have been vetted by ex-agency personnel to ensure they are ambitious but achievable – and none require action by Congress.
You can help, too. If you’re receiving this email, you can add your voice to the growing list of individuals and organizations who also want to see reform. We’ll get in touch with you soon about what you can do.
First, use more transparency in agency awards
We’re at an inflection point. Solutions developed and implemented by local and next-generation innovators can often be deployed with better quality and at a fraction of the cost of more traditional models. But, in the absence of more public, standardized, and granular reporting about what we currently get for USAID’s investments, it’s impossible to measure this in systematic way. USAID should default to open. For any award over $10 million, it should publish within weeks of receipt: every work plan, key performance indicator progress report, and non-procurement sensitive grant and contract agreement made between USAID and its partners. It should also ensure the public can search and track these data in a standardized way.
Requiring large contract and grant holders to publicly report the percent of an award they promised would go to sub-partners compared to what they actually devolved would also create strong incentives for them to avoid “pulling in a local organization as a subcontractor simply to win a bid, only to see them ignored or cut out later,” as Administrator Power said in June.
More transparency will show us USAID is serious about its about promises to deliver “Progress, Not Programs.”
Second, scale up evidence-based solutions
If you didn’t have a chance to check out last week’s Vox article yet, you should. It outlines many of the ways that USAID can increase its use of evidence to inform decision making. High-impact, evidence-based solutions, especially those led by local partners, should be the first in line to draw on USAID funding.
We hear often that USAID needs more contracting officers. While that may be true, there are a lot of other global development donors that, like USAID, also need to do due diligence and manage a diverse partner base. If USAID signed reciprocity – or “mutual recognition” – agreements with other trusted funders, it could directly fund or co-finance their highest-impact solutions, accept their vetting reports to get new prospective partners in the door, and free up USAID staff to take on other high-priority work.
For example, the Global Innovation Fund (GIF) uses a tiered-funding model that scales as organizations mature and show evidence of impact. Gavi’s Infuse program identifies “scalable, high-impact, proven innovations” that have the best shot at improving vaccine delivery systems. USAID could be plussing-up investments for solutions in the GIF and Gavi portfolios. It could also ask trusted philanthropies, the Development Finance Corporation, and multilateral banks which of their partners do the most good and direct more resources to scale their solutions. And it can look within, too, by scaling the highest-impact programs supported by the agency’s highly effective Development Innovation Ventures unit. Best of all, USAID can do all of this without breaking Congressional directives, for example, by using Food for Peace money to scale up food-security programs or Global Health Bureau funding to scale up effective health solutions.
We’d see far more interest among more innovative players to work with USAID if the agency made a commitment to back evidence-based solutions – not just for pilots, but for scale ups, too. We’ve seen this happen with other US federal agencies. It’s time to bring this approach to USAID.
Third, bring in new partners for better outcomes
There’s a new generation of organizations that are solving problems in global development, but they don’t think of themselves as “development” companies or “implementing partners.” Instead, many of these for-profit and nonprofit groups have sustainable business models and they already work in the countries that USAID supports – no one needs to fly in from overseas. These organizations also have accountability to the communities they serve. But if USAID wants to work with partners like these, the agency needs to meet them where they are. These organizations are unlikely to change their business models just to win a USAID grant or contract.
One of the single best ways to entice local and non-traditional USAID partners to work with USAID is to significantly increase the use of straightforward, milestone-based contracting models like Fixed Amount Awards and Firm-Fixed-Price contracts. We consistently hear from our coalition members that these kinds of awards are easier to apply for, manage, and comply with than alternative agency contracting models. In fact, the organizations that have won milestone-based awards from USAID in the past tell us they loved working with USAID, and would work with the agency again. And, because the government only pays when objectives are met, these award types also serve as a good way to mitigate concerns about fraud, waste, and abuse.
USAID can also bring down barriers to entry for non-traditional partners by increasing its use of tools like Annual Program Statements – which only require organizations to submit a basic concept note to begin the proposal process – and move away from the use of complex, jargon-laced RFPs that perpetuate the status quo.
We back Administrator Power’s ambitious vision for reform. That’s why we’re ready to do our part to roll up our sleeves, bring our energy, and mobilize different constituencies to create the political space needed to make change happen.
But we have to act fast. Time is running out to do big things. “The status quo is tough to shift,” as Administrator Power told us in November, “but we have got to try.”
Executive Director, Unlock Aid