Dave Eckerson serves as Counselor at USAID
Reflecting on the launch of the USAID Forward Progress Report today, I am reminded of the Mission Director’s Conference held four years ago in Leesburg when we all met Raj Shah for the first time. He had been nominated to be USAID’s administrator, but not confirmed, and his visit to our conference was unofficial—and under the radar of the press. I was mission director in Uganda at the time. And as the nearly 70 of us representing every mission in the world met the man who was about to lead us, the energy was palpable, his questions were many, and we were all impressed.
He had a vision to make USAID the best development agency in the world. He projected an aura of confidence that it could be done. And most important, with respect and humility, he said he couldn’t do it alone. He needed us to tell him how.
Raj left that night, and the next day we threw out the agenda the conference planners had painstakingly developed. Instead, we spent the day developing an agenda for action to present to our new administrator to restore the Agency’s place as the premier development agency in the world.
For all of us, the agenda was grounded in what we learned when we entered the Agency. Be focused and rigorous in what we do and what we don’t do. Develop strategic plans that explain country context, define development objectives, and describe intended results from our assistance. Work directly with host governments and local organizations. Build their capacity to govern and deliver services. Innovate. Use cutting-edge science and technology to enhance our efforts. Be rigorous in our evaluation and monitoring. Share the findings widely to improve what we do, and stop re-inventing wheels that keep falling off wagons. And finally, have enough staff to do the job ourselves, and not rely on hired guns.
I was a member of the group that took our agenda to Raj in his office at the Department of Agriculture the next week. We presented it to him, he asked a lot of questions, and as we left, we all felt he got it.
I returned to Uganda and spent the last three years implementing the agenda that became USAID Forward. We developed the first country development cooperation strategy in the Agency. We focused our resources on clearly defined objectives and results. Reforms in Washington led to major changes in the ways we could do business in the field.
We realized after a rigorous analysis (that we did ourselves) the key focus of our proposed value-chain work in coffee, corn and beans was already being done under a joint European program. Rather than duplicate their work, and pay overhead on a USAID program, we used newly issued procedures to award $20 million to the joint European program. Under the agreement we defined clear measures of performance and accountability. And by doing so, we saved both time and resources.
After two years of implementation, private farmers and farmer organizations are obtaining remarkable yields and services. In a similar vein, DFID recognized the success of our extremely effective reproductive health program and gave us $30 million to extend the program to every district in the country. Again, the USAID Forward reforms radically simplified the way we do business, and allowed us to double the resources we had in an existing grant (without excessive red-tape and bureaucratic delays) to provide family planning services throughout a country with one of the highest population growth rates in the world.
More than anything else, I was awed by the influx of new talent in the Agency under the reform effort. Our U.S. direct hire staff grew by a third during my tenure in Uganda, and the diversity, incredible energy, and talent they brought changed our culture and way of life. We mentored, managed, and watched them grow into remarkably gifted and capable officers. In turn, they taught us the power of mobile technologies. They showed us the reach of their insight, creativity, and new ways of looking at development challenges.
Today the USAID Forward Progress Report tallies up what we have learned and done as an Agency. We have had success. We have had challenges. There is a long way to go to reach our topline indicators.
But, I can assure you one thing. The spirit of USAID Forward is in the hearts and minds of everyone in the Agency. For me, the reforms are in the rearview mirror, and they are leading us to the lane ahead. They are our new reality…and as we take up the president’s call to end extreme poverty in a generation, they will be on the horizon as well.
Take a look at an infographic that illustrates the USAID model of development that puts us on a path to deliver more innovative and sustainable results.