Showing US leadership through innovation in foreign assistance

If you caught the president’s State of the Union address a couple of nights ago, you’d know a big part of his vision for America was focused on innovation and competitiveness. “Our success in this new and changing world,” Obama said, “will require reform, responsibility, and innovation.” He presented a bold plan to create jobs and grow our economy through reformed education, more efficient government and investment in science and technology. It was an inspiring speech that called upon Americans to “do big things.”

But this talk isn’t new. Throughout government, we’ve been seeing a lot of these principles put in practice by many agencies and programs, including those working on foreign assistance. The State Department, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have all put a premium on becoming more efficient, effective and transparent in their support for poor nations and are embracing innovative ideas to save money and make a bigger impact.

On reform, we saw a slew of new proposals and strategies for improving US foreign assistance this past year, from the President’s Policy Directive and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, to USAID’s new FORWARD reforms. All of these aim to reorganize agencies, reduce redundancies and red tape, and focus on monitoring and evaluation of programs to guide future funding decisions. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by the Bush administration in 2004, has been a front runner in this field for its innovative and transparent assistance to countries, which includes diligent cost-benefit analyses, clear and measurable goals and time lines, and the capability to pull funding from those countries that don’t hold up their end of the bargain. As the impact evaluation results start coming in for completed grants (compacts agreements), we hope to see even more evidence of the success of this model.

But in addition to just changing the way the US government delivers assistance, real change for the developing world will likely stem from new ideas, fresh thinking and harnessing science and technology to improve lives. USAID has already started upgrading its Office of S&T and has created the Development Innovation Ventures fund that will invest in promising innovative development breakthroughs and help bring successful ventures to scale. According to USAID’s announcement last fall, their first grant recipients include projects aiming to improve rural solar access, create an affordable fuel cell-powered bicycle, and develop a new way to measure the effectiveness of a cellular SMS election monitoring platform in reducing election fraud in Afghanistan.

Throughout other programs, technological advances are receiving a lot of attention. In the Feed the Future initiative, the US approach to agricultural assistance includes technology innovations such as drought-tolerant crops that will increase food production and food security. And the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, with support from the US and others, recently incentivized the development of two new vaccines for two of the biggest killers of children, pneumonia and diarrhea. US support has also helped pave the way for research into new tools like microbicides for women to protect themselves against HIV.

While some of these innovations do require small amounts of additional investment up front, they are poised to save significant money in the future, as efficiencies are realized, private sector funds are leveraged and partner countries take ownership of these programs. Other reforms — like the new USAID Dashboard that shows where American tax dollars are being spent on foreign assistance — have already been implemented and just make good sense. As President Obama said, “we shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable. We should give them a government that’s more competent and more efficient.”

At a time when government programs are on the chopping block and every dollar needs to be justified, it’s important that we support those programs that are making real reforms and changing lives for millions of people around the world. By standing with the administration to elevate our development work, America has the opportunity to showcase not just its military might, but its vision and leadership for a more prosperous world and the advancement of core US national interests.

At top: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza