By Winston J. Allen, PhD
Senior Evaluation Specialist, USAID Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning
USAID entered my life in 1963, when I participated in the school lunch program at my elementary school, the Congo Town Municipal Primary School in the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The school lunch, supported by USAID, was a high point in our school day, and was the only thing that stood between us and our regular lunch time soccer game. The lunch menu was usually fish stew served with bulgur, cornmeal, or rice, accompanied by a glass of milk. Although the lunch program was sponsored by USAID, back then, we associated it with President Kennedy. To this day, I can safely say that, President Kennedy has been the most popular American president in Sierra Leone. Local folk songs were composed in his honor, while streets and buildings were named after him. As kids, we felt that he provided lots of goodies for us, and was an inspiration to my generation on the virtues and values of the United States.
As the years unfolded, USAID continued to play a significant role in the development of Sierra Leone, and my life. As an undergraduate student majoring in geography at the University of Sierra Leone, in the late 1970’s, we made regular field trips to the USAID funded Adaptive Crop Research and Extension (ACRE) Project, as part of an agricultural geography class. Through these visits I saw the development needs of the country, and I became interested in pursuing a career in international development.
In 1985, I arrived in the United States to pursue graduate studies in international development planning at the University of Pennsylvania, and my journey with USAID continued. The agency and its partners were primary sources of data for my dissertation research on the transformation of United States Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs), from philanthropic to development agents in Africa. A significant finding of my research was that program activities implemented by PVOs with USAID funds were rarely evaluated. This finding eventually became the basis of my international development career. Upon completion of my doctorate in 1992, my journey continued with working on evaluations of reproductive health, child survival, and HIV/AIDS programs supported by USAID.
In 2010, my journey with USAID brought me to the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning, where I now work as a Senior Evaluation Specialist, at the office of Learning Evaluation and Research. My arrival coincided with what I consider a very unique and exciting period in the history of USAID – the elevation of Development as one of the pillars of US foreign Policy, the others being Diplomacy and Defense. More exciting was the recognition of evaluation as the vehicle through which learning can take place to maximize the impact of USAID programs. As a result, my work has focused on the impact evaluation of the Feed-the-Future initiative, using evaluation methods that include experimental and quasi-experimental designs. Even though my career is dedicated to the scientific rigor of evaluation methods, I always remember that there are people around the world with individual stories of the impact of USAID’s work, including me.