Policy coherence for sustainable development

United States (1998), Development Co-operation Review


Development Co-operation Review 1998: Summary and Conclusions

The state of national consensus on foreign assistance

Just as the United States was the first nation to launch major programmes of development assistance, its programmes were the first to be subjected to intense pressure and criticism. After a long period of declining support and fragmenting consensus, the US authorities have in recent years seized a series of major opportunities to strengthen political and public confidence in their programmes. Within the framework of a Government-wide campaign to improve public management, USAID has sought to be a leader in these areas while simultaneously working toward "best practices" to improve the quality and impact of the programmes themselves. A highly ambitious campaign for change has attempted to link reforms in aid management systems with setting clearer goals for aid, establishing stronger partnerships, building more developing-country capacity, promoting attention to gender issues, and seeking better ways to help developing countries to enter the world economy through a range of other policies, alongside development assistance. This re-thinking and reform have at the same time been tuned to the major changes underway in the international environment for development and development co-operation in which the United States is a prominent participant as in the DAC contributions to the Development Partnerships Strategy. The Committee looks forward to the full impact of the reforms and initiatives that have been launched.

The Administrator of USAID now believes that a "rough consensus" has been forged in the United States about the contemporary needs for foreign assistance, but concedes that it remains an open question whether or when this consensus will translate into sufficient political support to arrest the declining volume of American aid. The programme itself needs to complete, absorb and show benefits from the intense series of reforms that have been introduced on so many fronts. The peer community of donors sees the current level of American aid as inadequate to bring to bear in the world the evident capacities of the US development agencies and of American society more widely. A high level of political leadership would clearly be needed to bring the United States' foreign assistance effort to a level commensurate with the United States' capabilities and world-wide interests. The Committee was encouraged by the recent extensive visit of the President of the United States to Africa, and his commitment to seek to increase the budget for African aid to its historically high levels.

Strategic framework and results sought

An important new element in the United States programme has been hinged to the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA), requiring all US government agencies to establish performance objectives, to report progress annually to Congress, and to prepare strategic plans. The US aid authorities have embraced the goals of placing emphasis on results or outcomes of federal programmes and harmonized strategic planning among federal departments and agencies.

Since the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 under President Kennedy, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been the main organisational instrument, with primary responsibility for promoting sustainable development, for providing humanitarian assistance with bilateral resources and for managing bilateral aid programmes and activities. USAID is presently responsible for some 65 per cent of the programme. The remainder of United States foreign assistance is handled by other parts of the Executive Branch, the main ones being: Treasury Department (multilateral development banks - MDBs); State Department (UN agencies and some humanitarian and refugee programmes); Peace Corps (volunteer programme); Department of Defense (some limited support for humanitarian programmes), and Agriculture Department (budget for food aid, most of which is managed and implemented by USAID).

Pursuant to the Government Performance Results Act, USAID issued its Strategic Plan (September 1997) with a mission statement:

"USAID contributes to the US national interest through the results it delivers by supporting the people of developing and transitional countries in their efforts to achieve enduring economic and social progress and to participate more fully in resolving the problems of their countries and the world."

The Strategic Plan establishes six USAID goals under each of which there is a framework of objectives and programme approaches. Performance goals with indicators are spelled out for each goal. The six USAID goals are:

  1. Broad-based economic growth and agricultural development encouraged.

  2. Democracy and good governance strengthened.

  3. Human capacity built through education and training.

  4. World population stabilized and human health protected.

  5. The world's environment protected for long-term sustainability.

  6. Lives saved, suffering associated with natural or man-made disaster reduced, and conditions necessary for political and/or economic development re-established.

In addition, there is a management goal that USAID remain a premier bilateral development agency, and USAID has identified five core values which should run through the entire agency's organisation and methods, namely: customer focus, results orientation, empowerment and accountability, teamwork, and diversity.

The clarity of the Strategic Plan framework, with performance indicators in support of goals and objectives, offers the prospect of better explaining foreign assistance and ultimately demonstrating its value and impact to the US Congress and the public. At the same time, it was striking in this Review that, even though the strategic planning approved for the US Government was mandated by the Congress, the Congress continues to shift strategic directions and to control details to a degree unknown in other donor countries. From a comparative perspective,the strategic planning approach and systems of USAID are consistent with both the process and the content of the Development Partnerships Strategy supported by the United States in the DAC. In fact, because the Strategic Plan calls for a ten-year horizon, USAID indicators may generate some milestones toward the agreed, longer-term DAC goals.

One example of this broad strategic complementarity is found in the USAID aim to help reduce the proportion of the population in poverty by 25 per cent by 2007. In this connection, it was noted in this Review that the over-arching poverty-reduction goal of the DAC Strategy is expressed and embodied in distinctive ways in the American programme. The objective of poverty-reduction is explicit in the USAID goal for encouraging broad-based economic growth and agricultural development, and implicit in a number of other goals. In adopting a systemic, non-targeted strategy for poverty-reduction, the US approach puts a premium on systemic approaches to assessing needs, projecting and tracking poverty-reduction impacts (including the necessary differentiation among groups and between women and men) and evaluating the efficacy of different approaches. The United States is not yet in a position to demonstrate that it has applied its considerable capacities to back-up its poverty-reduction approach in these ways. Other DAC Members will wish to follow closely the methods applied and the impacts achieved in poverty-reduction through this distinctive American approach.

Partnership and capacity building

USAID's approach to aid processes forms part of the powerful international consensus on the need for development co-operation to be more rooted in true partnerships, led by developing countries and their people. A core concept of USAID programme operations is the strategic objective for which a USAID Strategic Objective Team is responsible. USAID procedures call for an expanded Strategic Objective Team to include, in addition to US officials, local groups or persons who, as major customers for the strategic objective, represent development partners and key stakeholders, in particular those local groups or individuals expected to realise significant gains or significant losses. USAID aims to improve its working methods at the field level through this New Partnerships Initiative (NPI). NPI is designed to promote the art and habit of strategic partnering for collective problem-solving at the community level. In the 15 or more countries where it has been tested and replicated, the NPI approach is reported to improve partnership and host country ownership, but information is as yet inconclusive on this innovation that will bear close watching by other donors.

The role of Private Voluntary Organisations/Non-governmental Organisations (PVOs/NGOs) is already considerable in the United States programme, particularly considering the high level of contributions coming from PVOs/NGOs' own resources. In 1996 US PVOs received from USAID some $1.4 billion, which supplements the $2.4 billion for development that they collect privately. That role takes on even more importance under the new partnership concept. USAID channelled well over 30 per cent of its aid through PVOs/NGOs (as of 1996-97 according to USAID statistics) and may raise this level even further. From a comparative perspective, the Committee discussed the challenge involved in relying so extensively on independent development organisations to design and deliver their programmes, while maintaining the focus of the Strategy and developing country ownership.

Under the partnership concept, building capacity is a prominent theme in USAID programmes. Much of this work is related to promoting economic growth, and helping to strengthen institutions and systems that support and reinforce markets. It also relates to expanding access and opportunity for the poor, particularly women and other disadvantaged groups, by emphasizing empowerment and access, especially for women. USAID has long had a large education programme, particularly at higher levels, with a special effort to include women. In recent years, more attention is being put on expanding and improving basic education, with a strong focus on educating girls. Capacity building has been part of programmes in democracy and governance, environmental management and in helping developing countries to deal with disasters through prevention, mitigation, preparedness and planning. The capacity-building orientation is well integrated into the US programme.

Aid co-ordination

The United States participates in the major international co-ordination fora (DAC, World Bank Consultative Groups, Special Programme of Assistance to Africa, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Round Tables, Global Coalition for Africa, Club du Sahel, Tokyo International Conference on African Development) and numerous local aid groups at the field level. The Japan-US Common Agenda and the New Transatlantic Agenda are mechanisms that have intensified and improved the United States' co-ordination with Japan and the European Commission respectively.

The relative shrinkage of US aid resources appears to have further reinforced the awareness at all levels in USAID of the need to improve co-ordination on the international and country levels, and of USAID's stake in doing more to help make this improved co-ordination happen. This is recognised in the Strategic Plan and in the very definition USAID uses of a "result" in a results-based management system: a "result" is brought about "by the intervention of USAID in concert with its development partners." It is always difficult to assess aid co-ordination efforts of a donor in the field, particularly one like the United States, which has an extensive, world-wide programme. Given USAID's own analysis of the need of improved co-ordination and indications of uneven aid co-ordination in the field, other donors and partners will look to US approaches for building the difficult work of co-ordination into the normal, and recognised, tasks of its staff, and helping to make co-ordination much more systematic.

Reforms and re-engineering in USAID

Pursuant to the National Performance Review (NPR - a US Government management reform initiative begun in 1993 under the direction of Vice President Gore) USAID undertook to be a "reinvention lab" to test ways of improving performance and customer service by re-engineering work processes and eliminating unnecessary regulations. Reinforced by the NPR, and responding to the Government Performance Reporting and Results Act (GPRA) as well as to reduced funding levels, USAID has undertaken major reforms intended to:

  • orient its operations according to strategic planning, rather than merely to track the implementation of projects;

  • redesign and simplify its procedures to eliminate unnecessary documentation and layers of approval;

  • enable USAID programmes to focus routinely on the perspectives of its customers (beneficiaries);

  • reduce the number of overseas missions and total agency staff; and

  • begin to establish a world-wide information system (a very ambitious project which encountered serious installation problems and is not yet completely operational).

Generally, setting core values, establishing a Strategic Plan, putting the focus on results, and re-engineering appear to be constructive, good practices, to be welcomed as contributions to effective development co-operation. Some aspects of cutting back overseas presence are more debatable. Mission closures and allocation of aid have been justified for a variety of reasons (security and political considerations, "graduation", poor results, political instability, legal requirements, and small country populations). But it is the general view within USAID and by observers that the driving force behind the closures was to obtain operational budget savings and that the extent of cut-backs of USAID's overseas presence diminished two of its most prized assets: an experienced, strong field staff, close to the action, and the unique scope of the United States programme in line with America's global capabilities.

According to USAID's latest workforce plans, the field staff will not be reduced significantly in the near future, levelling off at 700 career staff, but cuts will be made in headquarters. On the asset side, USAID has gone further than probably any other DAC Member in using local nationals to help administer its programme overseas, both in administrative and professional capacities. This has not only provided training and opportunities for local nationals, but can also help foster the partnership approach in the field. At present USAID has over 4 200 local nationals on its employment rolls, many of whom are highly trained professionals, both women and men, in key positions in field missions. This especially active US policy underlines the concern, as with the interventions of all external partners affecting local skills markets, of the importance of applying and sharing appropriate policies to minimise distortions in the balanced development of skilled human resources.

Democracy, governance, conflict and disaster response

The building of democratic institutions, free and open markets and pluralistic society with mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution, have now been recognised as foundations for sustainable development and they have become a mainstream foreign assistance activity. USAID was one of the early agencies working in the fields of governance and democracy, including judicial reform. In the 1960s and 1970s, somewhat similar work had been carried out in public administration strengthening and training programmes. However, the nature of these earlier programmes changed considerably, starting in the mid-1980s, to become more directly concerned with building democratic institutions and improving governance. The prominence of the democracy and governance theme is now evident in the fact that it is one of USAID's six strategic goals. USAID has democracy and governance activities in nearly 90 countries world-wide, focusing on strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; improving political processes; developing civil society; and making government more transparent and accountable. A great deal has been learned from these experiences, but according to USAID quantitative measures for these programmes remain "elusive". USAID is working to develop performance-based measures of impact, and has catalogued a number of instances where its programmes have contributed to democratic processes and better governance around the world. USAID is also working closely with the European Commission under the New Transatlantic Agenda on this theme, a welcome example of co-ordination.
The United States has a strong tradition of providing assistance in natural and man-made disasters. This programme managed by USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in the Bureau for Humanitarian Response (BHR) operates in close co-operation with the State Department, which manages humanitarian assistance programmes for refugees, and the Defense Department, which provides primarily logistic support. USAID has encountered the same phenomenon as other DAC Members, having seen an increase in some recent years of the number and intensity of disasters, and particularly prolonged complex emergencies involving political and military conflict (e.g. Africa's Great Lakes region, Angola, Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone). USAID aims to act to save lives, reduce suffering, and assist in the return to sustainable development. In the area of food security, it has also put in place programmes to provide early warning (e.g. Famine Early Warning System -- FEWS), and to mitigate and prevent disasters.

The US Transition Initiative aims to respond to the needs between relief and development. It is a new USAID mechanism to assess and address short-term political and economic needs in the recovery stage including demobilisation and reintegration of soldiers, electoral preparations, governance, and civil infrastructure. The US contributed actively in helping to prepare the DAC Guidelines on Conflict, Peace and Development Co-operation approved at the DAC High Level Meeting (May 1997) and which were a point of reference for the G7/G8 Summit in Denver (June 1997). USAID has also been a partner in the multi-donor group examining lessons from the Rwanda crisis aimed at improving the donor community's understanding of complex emergencies and future responses to complex emergency situations.


In terms of process, USAID continues to be one of the lead agencies in the area of gender and women in development issues. Placing the Women in Development (WID) Office in the Global Bureau has provided it with important leverage. It can launch its own initiatives and provide advice to other offices and bureaus. Its highly qualified career staff, specialised in specific sectors as well as in gender issues, work in conjunction with other staff at headquarters, in the field and through various contractual mechanisms. This ensures that relevant and appropriate advice and technical assistance are provided on a timely and useful basis in response to requests from all parts of the Agency. The Gender Plan of Action (1996), based on 20 years of experience, constitutes an agency-wide blueprint aimed at institutionalising gender issues throughout USAID. Staff seem to include gender considerations as a normal part of their everyday work.

Positive impacts on girls and women as a result of USAID activities are tangible although it is early to draw conclusions from direct evaluations of impact resulting specifically from the gender plan of action. Initial reports include some interesting detailed findings, a number of which have a bearing on the crucial Partnership Strategy goal of improving female education as a key to sustainable promotion of gender equality. If USAID can further reinforce this effort and share effective ways of achieving results, it will be a major contribution to the global effort.


USAID's environmental strategy aims at helping to protect the world's environment for long-term sustainability by reducing the threat of global climate change; conserving biological diversity; sustainable urbanisation including the promotion of pollution management; increased use of environmentally sound energy services; and increasing sustainable management of natural resources. An OECD/DAC case study (September 1996) of environmental considerations in development co-operation concluded that the concern for sustainable management of the environment had been strengthened over the previous five years and was clearly integrated in the Agency Management Framework (predecessor of the Strategic Plan). The Strategic Plan should give new impetus to this field. However, the case study also cautioned that, from an organisational perspective, further efforts would be required to ensure that sound environmental expertise would be available throughout the USAID field system. Several US agencies and departments are involved in environmental programmes and the co-ordination of their activities under the Strategic Plan will require close monitoring.

Effectiveness, evaluation and results-oriented aid

Among DAC Member-agencies, USAID has been one that has placed great emphasis in assessing its aid effectiveness, measuring and evaluating programme performance, (including gender issues) and using this information "to manage for results". Lessons learned are brought together by USAID's Center for Development Information and Evaluation (CDIE), a leader in the field of information and evaluation. Moreover, CDIE's service oriented systems answer questions rapidly and provide activity managers with the latest lessons of research, analysis, and agency experience.

USAID performance measurement systems, which track the Strategic Plan, are used to assess progress through the use of indicators for each programme result. Unfortunately USAID's New Management System (NMS) which includes results-tracking, is not at a fully functional level. Once the difficult installation problems have been overcome, the system should enhance USAID's ability to manage, analyse and report on its performance and to contribute to assessing progress in relation to the Development Partnership Strategy. For several years USAID has prepared performance reports which are well done and increasingly tied to strategic planning.

Multilateral programme

The US multilateral programme led by Treasury Department, for International Financial Institutions (IFIs) including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), and the State Department, for United Nations agencies and other international development institutions, has been subject to the same strategic planning process as USAID. The United States exercises its influence not only as one of the largest contributors to the multilateral system, but also through its policy and intellectual inputs.
The policy directions outlined in the Treasury Department's Strategic Plan for International Programmes (September 1997) support broad-based sustainable development and market-oriented policies and seeks reforms of IFIs to increase their development and cost effectiveness. The Early Project Notification System of USAID, in co-operation with the Treasury Department, informs Embassies and USAID field missions of upcoming MDB projects and World Bank Country Assistance Strategies and solicits input. This has proved to be an effective mechanism for channelling information from the field into the MDB decision-making processes. Notably, this system was instrumental in bringing about changes in favour of increased concern for environmental issues in MDBs.

The State Department's International Affairs Strategic Plan (September 1997) has goals that likewise rely heavily on multilateral action in strengthening democracy, preventing conflict, promoting human rights and rule of law. It also proposes to reform and reinvigorate UN institutions to more effectively address international environmental problems. The State Department also shares with USAID the goal of stabilising world population growth and more multilateral investments in population related activities. The State Department goal of protecting human health and reducing the spread of infectious diseases unquestionably calls for increased international co-operation for prevention, surveillance, and response to infectious diseases, an area where USAID is particularly active and which benefits from strong Congressional support.

The reform of international development institutions and the enhancement of their development effectiveness, which are goals shared by all departments and agencies in the United States' multilateral system, can no doubt be addressed with greater effectiveness through improved co-ordination. The strategic planning process has considerable promise to improve the co-ordination of the US multilateral programme, which also depends on several other mechanisms (task forces and working groups described in this Report).

The US has accumulated substantial arrears both to the United Nations (UN) system and until recent progress, to the multilateral concessional financing facilities, due to Congressional reluctance to approve the necessary appropriations. The Administration's budget proposals for 1999 would repay these obligations, but this will be subject to Congressional action. Clearly, constructive US leverage in its push to reform multilateral assistance programmes would be enhanced by the capacity to deliver on its international financial commitments.

Policy coherence and internal co-ordination: process and substance

The weight and reach of the United States' international influence places unique importance on the ways in which the full range of its policy instruments can affect the development prospects of developing countries. The relative importance of the United States pursuing pro-development policies beyond the field of aid is further heightened by the fact that the size of the US aid effort is proportionally so much smaller than that of other DAC Members. The United States can point to a number of major fields where the integration of the long-term development perspective in its policy approaches has been relatively strong and getting stronger. Several options to improve policy coherence are explored in this Report.
The introduction of strategic planning by all departments and agencies may bring some new harmonizing discipline and improved coherence at the broad policy level, but it is too soon to evaluate. In the international affairs budget (Function Account 150) the leadership of the State Department under the overall guidance of the Office of Management and Budget has been strong in recent years. Many other mechanisms exist to improve co-ordination and coherence in budget, multilateral affairs, debt, trade, and particularly complex contingency operations.

These mechanisms and systems have been studied several times and appear to function with reasonable effectiveness, at least on the co-ordination side. However, the persistence and intractability of some coherence problems suggests the need to see whether the strategic planning process can be used more effectively to address the issues of co-ordination and coherence or whether improvements can be made as suggested in a number of commission reports, discussed in Chapter 7 of the Secretariat Report. At the field level, it should be noted, United States Ambassadors have a clear legal mandate to co-ordinate US efforts in a given country, and this is a relatively strong mechanism for operational co-ordination.

US objectives for policy coherence

should be assessed against the influence of the US on the international trade and investment system, the US emphasis on market-based approaches to integrate developing countries into the global market, and the minimal relative US effort in the aid field. Based on these criteria one would expect vigorous American leadership in offering developing countries expanded access to OECD markets and especially the US market. The international community will look especially to creative new American contributions in strengthening developing countries' capacities for trade, improving market access, and mobilising development finance from all sources.

Budget and ODA volume: insufficient resources

While the United States has made considerable efforts to help developing countries enter the world-wide economy and could do more through trade-related coherence measures explored in this Report, these will not have the intended benefits for many developing countries unless accompanied by the supporting foundations that ODA can help to build. The need to help developing countries respond to many global problems affecting the well being of the United States remains and will be relatively unaffected, particularly in the short term, even if all policy coherence problems were resolved -- including extreme poverty, population and migration pressures, environment, climate change, HIV/AIDS, illegal drugs and other global concerns. Strengthened US contributions through ODA would appear to be rational both in terms of the overall public expenditure costs and the benefits to US national self-interests.
The United States accounts for over 30 per cent of the combined gross national product (GNP) of DAC Member countries and has the largest economy in the DAC. However, it contributed only 17 per cent of total DAC ODA in 1996. Each citizen in the four highest performing DAC countries contributes about $257 for development co-operation or over eight times more than each US citizen who contributes $31 (based on per capita figures for 1995/96, when the DAC average per capita for ODA was $71). The United States' ODA was 0.12 per cent of GNP in 1996, slightly less than half the DAC average (0.25 per cent) and the lowest GNP share among DAC Member countries for the fourth consecutive year. ODA disbursements amounted to $9 377 million in 1996, an increase of one quarter (in real terms) over 1995. This placed the United States second in absolute terms after Japan. While the upturn in ODA in 1996 is welcome, it was largely due to one-off factors. The overall trend of the United States' volume performance has been downward over the last decade, in both volume and as a share of GNP. Moreover, aid to Israel, which accounted for over 30 per cent of the United States bilateral ODA in 1995/96, will no longer be counted as official development assistance in subsequent years, reflecting that countries' advanced development status.

The quality of United States statistical reporting to the DAC varies considerably. Disbursements data, which are provided by the Commerce Department are timely and of high quality, although there may be some scope for broadening its coverage. Reporting by USAID on project commitments, tying status, and the sectoral distribution of aid is either poor or non-existent. This impedes the qualitative comparison of the United States' aid programme with those of other donors. USAID should attend urgently to its problems in statistical reporting.

Related to the low aid effort of the US is the fact that the International Affairs Account in the US budget covers a diverse range of activities, only some of which are ODA or foreign aid in the internationally-accepted sense. The fact that the US public grossly overestimates the portion of the budget they think is provided for foreign assistance and do not realise that the United States has the lowest level of effort among DAC Member countries, as shown by its ODA/GNP ratio, no doubt derives in part from a lack of clarity about the budget and a lack of information about the foreign assistance programme itself. USAID has attempted to educate the public in a wide variety of ways, including through PVOs/NGOs and the "Lessons without Borders" programme. Congress has cut back the resources available for development education in FY 1998. In parallel with the reform and revitalisation of assistance programmes themselves, it is clear that the US programme, even more than others, needs fresh and effective ways of educating the American public on the performance and potential of its impressive foreign assistance and humanitarian programmes.

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