Last month USAID distributed for public comment a new policy in draft form for the first time. Its Bureau of Policy, Planning & Learning’s Office of Policy solicited input on a draft of the Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World (PDF). USAID aimed to improve the draft and sharpen our institutional focus. We shared it online to USAID’s Twitter followers and Impact e-newsletter subscribers and received more than 100 comments.

The Urban Services policy is a product of more than a year of extensive internal discussion and research, and last month’s public input – inspired by the Obama Administration’s Open Government Partnership commitment – is expected to draw attention to USAID’s attempt to help communities and countries provide pro-poor services in the midst of unprecedented urban growth.

Taken during a United Nations flight, the photo shows one of the many campsites that have sprouted throughout Port-au-Prince, Haiti, since more than 1 million people were left homeless after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. Photo credit: Andrea Sternberg, USAID

What kind of growth are we talking about? By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities and more than 1.2 million square kilometers will have been converted into urban areas about the size of South Africa.

As we begin to analyze the results of the public outreach, I offer the following as a sample of early findings from our outreach (in percentages):

  • Roughly half of respondents affirmed that economic growth and trade (25) or democracy, human rights and governance (22) were program areas most likely to be affected – negatively or positively – by urban growth. About a fifth of respondents thought the program areas most likely to be affected were environment and global climate change (19) and water and sanitation (19). The effects on global health (8), agriculture and food security (3), and other programs (6) were also noted;
  • Respondents stated that USAID should pursue sustainable urban service delivery to increase USAID staff’s understanding and skills to deal with urban issues (29), increase the use of partnerships, particularly with the private sector and the donor community (29), and incorporate urban assessments into USAID Mission annual strategies and assessments (26). A smaller number affirmed that it was important to provide tools for Missions to design urban-focused programming (14).

In their submissions, many commenters applauded the Agency for recognizing and responding to the development challenges of urbanization. Several applauded the draft for addressing “the needs of marginalized groups, including women and persons with disabilities” and “highlighting of the role of governance as a prior condition for other service improvements.” Others noted a comparative advantage in the Agency’s local capacity building and its ability to “more easily work with [and] directly impact sub-national entities than most other donors.”

Some zeroed in on specific areas. For example a number of respondents recommended a focus on land rights and “more attention to the built environment – shelter, settlement and housing.” Others said USAID’s could heighten its role in supporting improved city management, “strengthening participative democracy at local level,” and supporting the “direct participation by the urban poor in the planning and implementation of service improvements.”

In terms of staffing, one commenter recommended a call for “strengthening the Agency with a cadre of Urban Development Officers.”

The impressive number responses suggests that the Urban Services policy is timely and an acceptance that development must adapt proactively to urban growth sustainably. Just as important, it showed that transparency has a role in development policy – before, after and during the time we implement our programs.