USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Fall Semester

USAID Fall Semester Review

It seems this semester is flying by and exams are fast approaching, making this the perfect time to step back and review everything that has happened so far during the USAID Fall Semester. Over the past two months, Administrator Rajiv Shah and other senior USAID staff have visited 14 college campuses across the country, directly engaging over 1,600 students. While introducing students to USAID’s mission, these visits have highlighted the important role that university students can play in development and how their ideas and innovations can be the difference in solving the most pressing global challenges. In addition to our campus visits,  Fall Semester has introduced USAID 101, which provides the history of USAID and in-depth learning materials about select development topics. All of these materials and a complete list of universities visited can be found below.

Administrator Shah greets students from University of Michigan's ONE Campaign campus group this past October. Photo Credit: Gerald Ford School of Public Policy.

And remember, whether it is getting an e-internship or a fellowship, competing in a Grand Challenge, applying for a DIV grant, or engaging with one of our partners, there is no shortage of ways to become involved in development work.

Learning Materials:

  • USAID 101
    • Lesson Plan: Innovation
    • Virtual Classroom: Mobile Money
    • Lesson Plan: Food Security
    • Book Club: Our Fall Semester Book Club gives you a list of development books that have been recommended by senior USAID experts. These books cover a wide range of development topics, from global economic history and world-changing science discoveries to strategies that help companies succeed in developing world markets.
    • USAID Impact Blog

Campus Visits: Check out pictures from USAID Fall Semester visits on the USAID Facebook Page

Serve with USAID: Visit this page to see how you can get involved with USAID.

USAID Book Club: Why Nations Fail

Fall semester @USAID banner image

Book: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Chosen by: USAID Chief Economist Steven Radelet

Synopsis: Why Nations Fail is a sweeping book aimed at answering one of the most critical questions facing the world today: why are some nations rich and others poor? Authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argue that it is political and economic institutions that underlie economic success. More strongly, they argue that development differences across countries are exclusively due to differences in political and economic institutions, and reject other theories that attribute some of the differences to culture, weather, geography or lack of knowledge about the best policies and practices. Written for a non-technical audience, the book romps through several thousand years of human history by drawing on examples from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, the United States, countries in Africa, and China to build a new theory of the political economy of development. It also looks forward, asking whether China’s rapid growth will continue, whether America’s best days are behind it, and whether western aid organizations use the best approaches and ideas in helping reduce poverty.

USAID Chief Economist Steven Radelet. Official Photo

Steve Radelet: If you like books that focus on the big questions of development and put today’s development challenges in a broad historical context, you’ll love Why Nations Fail. This is a very ambitious book written by two of the world’s most respected academic development economists, and is a must-read for anyone interested in why some countries are rich and others poor.

The authors make a strong case for the importance of institutions – property rights, rule of law, a level playing field and strong incentives of investments in new technologies and skills – in explaining differences in development across countries. They further argue that bad institutions are the product of political systems that create private gains for elites in developing countries and impoverish the broader society along the way. Countries with “extractive” economic and political institutions remain impoverished, whereas those with “inclusive” institutions are able to achieve sustained income growth and lift people out of poverty.

There is much that is right about this argument. But the book falters by overreaching and by arguing that differences in development progress are due exclusively to institutions. It dismisses the view that bad ideas – whether they be cultural ideas such as that women should be subservient, or economic ideas such as massive central planning – lead to poverty , and argues that while these are important they ultimately are caused by differences in institutions. Sometimes the arguments seem to get a bit circular. The authors believe the geography does not matter, and that institutions explain all of the income differences between land-locked deserts like Chad and coastal city-states like Singapore – a view that makes little sense to me.

And they take a shot at institutions like USAID that provide technical and policy advice to developing countries, arguing that we are wasting our time because while elites in developing countries know the right thing to do, they choose to do otherwise for their own self-interests. There are undoubtedly many elites that fit that picture, and we all know. But those of us who work with capacity-constrained governments in low-income countries that do not have the expertise to analyze what has worked around the world will find this conclusion puzzling and at odds with our own experiences. We have all worked with senior officials that want to do the right thing, but do not know the options and want to learn more about best practices and experiences from successful countries.

This is a book that will make you think hard about why some countries are rich and others poor, what we do, why we do it, and how we can best contribute to developing country’s efforts to fight poverty and achieve development success. Read it and let the debate begin.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do institutions create the incentives that lead to sustained development and poverty reduction?
  2. Do you think that institutions explain all of the differences in development across countries, or are some of these differences due to geography, culture, ideas or even just luck (good or bad)?
  3. The book argues that China has so far developed with extractive rather than inclusive institutions, and therefore China’s rapid growth cannot continue and may even collapse. Do you agree?
  4. What are the implications of the arguments in this book for USAID and how we direct our assistance?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester.

USAID Book Club: The Alchemy of Air

Fall semester @USAID banner image

Book: The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager

Synopsis: The publisher of “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” calls this 2008 book by Thomas Hager a story of “tragic genius, cutting-edge science, and the discovery that changed billions of lives.” Who knew there could be so much drama surrounding fertilizer?

Hager tells how two men – “brilliant, self-important Fritz Haber and reclusive, alcoholic Carl Bosch” – answered a call at the start of the 20th Century for the world’s scientists to address what was then a looming global disaster of starvation. Though the personal stories of the scientists prove tragic, the overarching narrative is an account the publisher describes as “a discovery that changed the way we grow food and the way we make war–and that promises to continue shaping our lives in fundamental and dramatic ways.”

Administrator Shah:

This book reminds us of the serendipity of scientific inquiry. It’s about the invention of fixed nitrogen fertilizer, a single invention that dramatically improved food production and helped support the massive population growth that took place over the last 70 years.

When people think about fertilizer, “world changing” may not be the first phrase that comes to mind. But fertilizer has made modern life possible. In retrospect, it’s one of the most important technological innovations of the 20th century.

How countries apply nitrogen-based fertilizer varies. Where it is overused it can have significant negative consequences for local ecosystems. In some countries, like China, they use almost 160 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare. While in the United States, the number was 60 or 70 kilograms per hectare a few years ago.

And then there are the countries that use virtually no fertilizer. In sub-Saharan Africa or dry-land South Asia – where most of the world’s poor farmers struggle to produce enough food to feed their families – they use about 8 kilograms per hectare.

Where fertilizer is not used, you see children going to bed hungry every night and an increase in the number of children who are stunted over 30 or 40 years ago. If children don’t get adequate nutrition, their brains don’t develop; and they can’t learn and contribute to society to the extent of their capacity. So the story of the application of fertilizer and the disparities of that application tell the story of both environmental and human consequences.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What about this scientific discovery surprised or impacted you the most?
  2. What lessons can developing countries striving to build their agriculture sectors take away from this book?
  3. How can countries balance the immediate need to increase food production and the long-term need to be good stewards of the soil in which the food is grown?
  4. Is it more cost effective for international development organizations to risk their limited funds on backing potential scientific discoveries or to spend those resources on strategies with proven track records that help people survive today?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester

USAID Book Club: Millions Saved

Fall semester @USAID banner image

This week’s choice comes from: USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Book: Millions Saved  by Ruth Levine and the What Works Working Group

Synopsis:  The second half of the 20th century saw unprecedented improvements in human health. While some can be tied to overall social and economic gains, specific efforts to address major causes of disease and disability—providing better and more accessible health services, introducing new medicines and other health technologies, and fostering healthier behaviors—were crucial to raising the bar on health for millions of people around the world.

In Case Studies in Global Health: Millions Saved, Ruth Levine and the Center for Global Development’s What Works Working Group identify, describe and analyze what has had demonstrable impact, proffering crucial lessons about how to tackle challenges of HIV/AIDS, child survival and global health inequities in the future.

Administrator Shah:  This one is personal for me. I participated in the working group that helped produce this publication. We received hundreds of examples of potential success stories, and chose those that were based on the most rigorous data and that succeeded at scale. These aren’t about saving two lives in one village somewhere, although that is important to do. These stories are about transforming the health of entire countries and reaching hundreds of thousands over time. All these projects also built institutional capacity that was sustained after the donors went away.

This book demonstrates that smart, well-constructed investments in global health can achieve widespread impact on the way people live. Some of the big successes they discuss include iron and iodine fortification, which improved the overall level of human health and nutrition. And in the field of family planning, by reducing the population growth rate, development programs created the underlying basis for economic growth.

USAID is putting some of those “lessons learned” to work in our Feed the Future program. We have taken all of the best practices of this report and put that into how we design food security programs around the world. We build partnerships with local institutions, do rigorous reporting and evaluation, choose projects that are scalable, and design projects that can be sustained after our money ebbs away.

Discussion Questions

1. Which of these case studies surprised or impacted you the most?

2. Which case best exemplifies the importance of countries building strong health systems?

3.  What does sustainability mean to you? Why do you think it is important that health projects developed or implemented by outside donors be sustainable?

4. In last week’s book club selection, A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark challenges the notion that outside intervention can truly help poor nations progress. Is there anything in Millions Saved that causes you to agree or disagree with Clark’s premise?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester.

USAID Book Club: A Farewell to Alms

Fall semester @USAID banner image

As part of USAID’s Fall Semester, we will host an online book club for our readers this fall. The Impact Blog will post suggestions from our senior experts at USAID to suggest a book on important issues in international development.  We’ll provide you and your book club with the reading suggestions and discussion questions, and you tell us what you think! Our fall reading list will  explore solutions to the most pressing global challenges in international development—mobile solutions, poverty, hunger, health, economic growth, and agriculture.

This week’s choice comes from: USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Book: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark

Synopsis: The source of human progress has long been a subject of debate. What makes rich countries rich, and poor countries poor? In the this book,  University of California, Davis, Economist Gregory Clark offers a provocative take on the age-old question, arguing that it was culture—rather than geography, natural resources or centuries of exploitation—that left some parts of the globe behind.

According to Clark, relative stability and effective workforces enabled certain societies to take better advantage of the Industrial Revolution’s new technologies and opportunities. Those countries with lax systems or undisciplined workers lost ground, and stayed there.

Clark’s book is skeptical of whether the poorest parts of the world will ever achieve real progress. For development professionals, it offers up a challenge to the belief that outside intervention can help bridge the vast economic divide between rich and poor.

Review:  This book impacted me because it shows how for hundreds, or even thousands, of years basic economic progress was largely stagnant. You didn’t have rapid compound increases in living standards until the Industrial Revolution when some countries and some societies got on a pathway towards growth – towards better health, longer life expectancy, higher income per person and more investment in education. Others remained on a slower-moving pathway.

That great divergence, and the study of it, is at the core of development. It is that divergence that we try to learn from and correct for. We define success in development as helping communities and countries get on that pathway towards improved health and education, and greater wealth creation.

I didn’t choose this book because I think it is the definitive story on development, but rather because I share its focus on core economic growth as the driver of divergence.

I disagree where Clark concludes that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development. With the right conditions in place, you can unlock a formidable work ethic from a range of different cultures and communities. The last 50 years have shown us that. By investing in local capacity and local institutions, we can leave a legacy of economic infrastructure, strong and capable leadership, and transparent, effective public and private sector institutions.

USAID’s partnerships in Latin America helped country after country develop strong institutions. The same can be said for South Korea. Unfortunately, there have been examples where aid and assistance have been provided in a manner that was not as sensitive to building lasting local capacity and institutions. This is true for all partners, not just our Agency. That’s why we’ve launched a program called USAID Forward, to refocus on working in a way that will create durable and sustained progress.

Administrator Shah is on Twitter at @rajshah. You  can also “Ask the Administrator” your questions on Crowdhall

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree with Clark that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development?

2. The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow has said Clark does not take into account how institutional factors, such as cronyism, inequitable taxation and ineffectual government cripple development. What role do you think these institutional factors play?

3. Clark challenges how effective outside intervention can be in helping poor nations progress. Do you agree?

4. Regardless of why some nations have fallen behind, how do you think they can bridge that gap today?

5. Has your world view changed after reading this book and how?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester