Making good rhetoric reality: Implementing the QDDR

The wait is over. Almost 17 months after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans for an assessment of State Department and USAID policies and programs, the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was released last week.

Titled “Leading Through Civilian Power,” the report outlines reforms to “make the State Department and USAID more nimble, more effective and more accountable.” The QDDR report reinforces the mandate of elevating development as a key pillar of America’s foreign policy and calls for continuing support of the USAID Forward reforms that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah implemented this summer. These changes are critical to ensuring that USAID can operate as the “world’s preeminent development agency.”

Key to empowering USAID is allowing the agency to assume leadership of two central presidential initiatives — Feed the Future (taking place immediately) and the Global Health Initiative (by the end of 2012, following the achievement of certain benchmarks outlined in the report).

Along with new strategies come the need for clear monitoring and evaluation systems to measure results and track impact. The QDDR recognizes that in order to both be accountable and transparent, frequent reporting against established metrics is essential to see what is working and also offer opportunities to alter course as necessary when projects fail to achieve intended outcomes.

There are many commendable and, in some cases, long-overdue reforms outlined in the QDDR that have the promise to positively and effectively alter the way the State Department and USAID do business. Nevertheless, there are a number of areas which will require further review, planning and negotiation to hash out the best strategies for moving forward and achieving real results:

Partnering with Congress: In her speech, Secretary of State Clinton noted that the QDDR took place foremost with fiscal responsibility and efficiency in mind. While the funding landscape ahead is challenging, the reforms for greater efficiency and measurable results should appeal to a Congress looking to reduce the deficit and maximize the impact of government spending. The QDDR offers a blueprint that is ahead of this debate and the State Department and USAID should seize the opportunity to forge a positive association with lawmakers. For two years, the administration has missed several critical opportunities to partner with Congress on global development initiatives. The QDDR offers a new opportunity, although in a difficult context.

Making tough decisions: President Obama’s Global Development Policy called for greater focus on where the US had comparative advantage and could make the most impact. The QDDR reinforces this principle and sets out six areas of focus: food security, health, climate change, economic growth, democracy/governance and humanitarian assistance. But what has not been said is where the US will pull back. Gaining consensus around where to cut will be difficult, but the QDDR does not help us understand where that might take place. Let’s hope that the FY2012 budget request will begin to define where the Administration has made these tough choices.

Harmonizing foreign assistance: The QDDR represents a solid effort to integrate and bring coherence to foreign aid policy and programs. But there are many other agencies besides State and USAID that provide some form of foreign assistance. The report defines “civilian power” as including all US government agencies, not just State and USAID. But breaking down entrenched bureaucratic priorities and convincing all agencies to work under the leadership of USAID on development assistance will be daunting. If we are to achieve a true “whole-of-government” approach, the heavy lifting lies ahead with the agencies and personnel tasked with implementation, and with other agencies whose cooperation they seek. The QDDR takes a leap towards streamlining and modernizing US foreign assistance. Now the hard work of implementation begins.

-Sara Messer and Larry Nowels