Nimble, Inclusive, Adaptable: A Strategic Approach to Match the Core Development Principles

Both advocates and practitioners of global development have called on the Biden-Harris administration to elevate development as an instrument of national security and an expression of U.S. national character. The nomination of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), now with a seat on the National Security Council (NSC), is an important step in that direction. Additionally, a strategy for global development can strengthen and consolidate development objectives. Yet, some policymakers, especially those who have been involved in previous strategic efforts, warn against burdensome processes that may not be worth the time and effort. Having both contributed to prior strategies and worked in the absence of one, our answer is emphatically yes: a global development strategy is needed, but only if the exercise (and the strategy itself) is nimble, inclusive, and adaptable.

The Why

Without an organized strategy or policy on development, U.S. development agencies struggle to align around shared objectives, make strategic decisions guided by national priorities, or implement cohesive programming. The Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Determination (PPD)-6 brought together the many departments and agencies that manage development assistance around a common understanding at the intersection of national interest and global development. Unfortunately, the process was lengthy and competed with other ongoing planning efforts, undermining its short-term buy-in and long-term impact.

In the absence of an overarching strategy and clearly defined objectives, development agencies tend to gravitate toward initiatives and internally driven priorities. While interagency initiatives such as the President’s Malaria Initiative and Power Africa are indeed effective development efforts, they remain sector specific and may not provide what partner countries actually require or be the most critical for U.S. national security. Seemingly ad hoc efforts by the new U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is a reminder that coordination and collaboration among agencies is essential to realizing the full potential of U.S. development efforts.

A unified strategy can guide an agencies’ international engagement—and leadership—on global development, ensuring that our strategic partners can be guaranteed consistent messaging and actions. For example, most of the world has embraced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as global development objectives. Given the outgoing administration’s neglect of the SDGs, it is critical that U.S. officials be able to determine how its strategic objectives can support and align with the SDG framework. A strategy offering a set of common objectives will clarify mandates and division of labor, yield better results, and strengthen U.S. leadership throughout the international arena.

U.S. development assistance is likely to be constrained, at least in the near term, given that marginal increases in the development budget have not kept pace with the growing scale of need. At the same time, rising pandemic-driven poverty, prolonged complex humanitarian crises, and accelerating climate change is placing more pressure than ever on the aid budget. Without a U.S. government-wide strategy, individual agencies will determine their own priorities that can be duplicative or even cross-purposed with those of other agencies. To make the most efficient use of every development dollar, agencies must work collaboratively towards the same objectives.

The When

To fully realize development’s potential as an instrument of national security—on par with diplomacy and defense—a set of principles for global development should be crafted in advance of the National Security Strategy (NSS). The purpose of the strategy is to get all development actors “rowing in the same direction,” but not to immerse them in a heavy-handed policy process. Therefore, leadership at the NSC should work toward producing a white paper on development principals within a four- to five-month period—preceding the National Security Strategy. The document would reflect significant interagency input and could be built into a formal strategy on global development following the completion of the NSS.

While this would be a break from the traditional sequence, going into the NSS with a concise set of principles will help development agencies clearly articulate the ways in which development contributes to national security, including global power competition. While defense and diplomacy are predominantly represented by a single department, development is not. As a result, it remains crucial for agencies with a development mission to provide compelling and harmonized input to the NSS, recognizing that principles and objectives are likely to evolve as a result of the NSS process. Once the NSS is finalized, the agencies can work to complete the global development strategy, with the option revisit the principles in the future.

The What

A new white paper from China recently clarified the country's core assistance principles. Although U.S. development principles once were assumed or unwritten, the current moment requires clarification and articulation. While much has been and will be written about potential priorities for a global development strategy, we suggest a few underlying principles for consideration:

  • Stronger, more resilient, systems. Regardless of sector, development assistance should always help strengthen partner country systems and enhance national level resilience to manage complex and recurring crises, including addressing needs within food security and nutrition, water and sanitation systems, and economic systems. Many countries are faced with cycles of repeating insecurity and crisis and cannot wait for a break in that cycle to strengthen their systems. This must include continuing investments in global health system strengthening to prepare for future pandemics.
  • Locally led. Countries are responsible for their own development, and U.S. assistance should support the efforts of partner governments, civil society, and the private sector. USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation have made significant progress fostering locally led development. Their efforts should continue and expand to other development agencies.
  • Democracy-Driven. Applying a democratic governance lens to all development efforts is essential for a variety of reasons. The strategy should account for the rapid export of autocratic norms and infrastructure around the developing world, the closing political space that is a byproduct of the pandemic, and the need to prioritize human rights centric approaches to preserving personal freedoms and openness. Particularly critical will be a focus on addressing corruption through promoting transparency and accountability standards.
  • Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus.S. assistance should seize opportunities to modernize and integrate siloed planning and implementation across the defense, development, and diplomacy, especially at the country level. The 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR), which began in earnest under the Obama administration, highlighted the need for more sequenced and layered assistance that can shift flexibly to respond to need. Similarly, the requirements of the U.S. Global Fragility Act for a U.S. Global Fragility Strategy offer a significant opportunity to push development and humanitarian actors out of their planning and implementation silos.
  • Innovative and Catalytic. The United States should commit to programming based on the values and principles articulated in USAID’s innovative Digital Strategy, released in 2020, including addressing the digital divide and its implications for development. The strategy should highlight the impact of digitalization in education and health systems, utilizing these principles to build these systems more inclusively and efficiently. Another area for innovation is around youth engagement by improving non-traditional programming that advances skills around good citizenship, media literacy, and critical thinking to serve as a bulwark against misinformation and empower young leaders. This would be particularly useful for the growing urban youth population.
  • Prioritize Prevention. Prevention is almost always less costly than the cure. The perpetual struggle is garnering attention and resources in a crisis-dominated environment. However, preventative measures can make a dent in climate change, conflict, and other big development challenges. Analysis from Harvard shows the necessity of “climate action to prevent the next pandemic.” The strategy must address the role of deforestation, carbon emissions, and climate-related migration as core development issues.
  • Evidence-Based. Planning and program design must be firmly guided by data and evidence. The Millennium Challenge Corporation’s scorecard and USAID’s country-level metrics and strengthened learning and knowledge management function are a foundation to build on and deserve attention within larger planning processes to ensure collaborative and forward-looking solutions.
  • The United States’ most challenging development problems demand a multilateral approach. It cannot and should not go it alone, but instead the United States should develop partnerships on sectors of shared interest, such as digital technology, with similarly aligned countries and international and regional institutions. While rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord are important and highly symbolic first steps, they should be followed by reknitting technical development partnerships at all levels of the international system. Formalized partnerships on development cooperation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) might build new digital development activities; working with the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) can mobilize global education goals. These efforts should reinforce existing, widely accepted multilateral frameworks such as the 2030 Decade of Action.
  • Serving Interests at Home. Development assistance serves beneficiaries around the world, but the needs of many Americans for security and prosperity have never been greater. Development assistance should be a core part of a foreign policy that directly benefits Americans by taking on issues around climate change, digital innovation, and health, as well as harnessing the ingenuity and dynamism of the U.S. private sector.

The How

The last effort to define a series of foreign assistance principles, the Trump administration's foreign assistance realignment (FAR), was controversial and confusing, with little input from key stakeholders. Despite the flawed process and the fact that the document was never finalized, development agencies were directed to integrate the FAR into planning and programming cycle guidance. In the end, the FAR’s impact on programming was limited. A more inclusive, data-informed conversation might have turned out differently.

Incoming officials should consider an innovative approach, including crowdsourcing input from civil society and other interested stakeholders. They should engage career staff, who have relevant expertise, including on-the-ground experience, and have intimate knowledge of agency structures and sector-specific mandates. These personnel can also help avoid the pitfalls that sometimes accompany organizational change and structural reform.

The process should also touch on roles and responsibilities and the inherent tradeoffs that come with policymaking. Dealing with these two areas early will position the development agencies to define their comparative advantage in preparation for the more formal National Security Strategy process and avoid the turf battles that have characterized prior processes.

USAID’s transformation process and the creation of the DFC have moved enough boxes for years. Now is the time to put substance to the structure. For example, the formation of the new Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) has exposed challenges in the coordination with the State Department (notably the Population, Refugees and Migration bureau) on critical humanitarian responses. The risk of silos is greater than ever and the challenges of coordinating even within USAID—in this case between BHA and the new conflict prevention bureau—are high.

The strategy-building process will be best served by including career officials and incoming administration appointees while also seeking fresh ideas from development partners. The conversation should be uniquely frank and open, allowing for enhanced cooperation as the U.S. development community begins to turn its focus toward tackling the most challenging global issues of our time.

Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Her views are not representative of her home institution. Susan Fine is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kristen Cordell

Kristen Cordell

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development

Susan Fine