USAID’s Don Steinberg: ‘Nothing about them without them’

Don Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, USAIDIn light of the UN High Level Panel’s meeting in Bali, Indonesia this week, Don Steinberg’s talk at Georgetown University, “The Path to Ending Extreme Poverty: the new rules of the road for development cooperation”, is more timely than ever.

Photo caption: Don Steinberg. Photo credit: Human Rights Commission, Flickr

This week’s UN High Level Panel meeting, which brings together world leaders to discuss the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals, will focus on ensuring that the next stage of development planning involves not only diplomats and politicians from the developing world, but other stakeholders that are empowered and enfranchised.

It’s an approach that Steinberg, the deputy administrator at USAID, see as the future of development – one that empowers local governments and civil societies to dictate their own priorities while also informing broader international plans.

USAID and other members of the development community have not always followed such an inclusive path – but this new policy is about doing “nothing about them without them”, says Steinberg. In the last four years, USAID has implemented this shift not only in its development and policy consultations, but also in its on-the-ground projects. They have emphasized hiring local workers to help provide employment opportunities and generate job growth, while also reducing expenses associated with hiring US-based contractors.

Steinberg is well aware of the dangers of excluding local actors when deciding where and how to allocate funding for development projects. He recalled his first assignment as a foreign service officer in the Central African Republic, where he was asked to build a health clinic in the area. He was approached by local politicians and government workers who said that a health clinic was obsolete, as there were no serious health threats in question. They instead suggested that the money fund the construction of an air-conditioned government office building. Fortunately, he consulted women from the marketplace and asked for their input in what services were needed most in the area. They responded that a variety of health risks, from the lack of trained midwives and birth attendants to malnutrition and water-borne illnesses, were serious threats and accounted for a large number of preventable deaths in the area.

This anecdote is an important reminder of why ONE is so committed to asking normal, everyday citizens in the developing world about what they want to see in the post-2015 development agenda. Here at ONE, we’ve implemented that mindset in our own campaigns and petitions. Our You Choose campaign, for example, engages Africans from all walks of life by asking them to submit their priorities for the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals – such as food, employment, and infrastructure – through a free SMS program and other web-based platforms. We’re gathering their responses and sending them to world leaders. We’re also asking ONE members all across the world to sign our petition asking the co-chairs of the UN High Level Panel to listen to the world’s poorest when making their agenda.

Mobilizing everyday citizens is helping to ensure that they hold their government accountable for how development dollars are spent, including those that come from international donors, the private sector and domestic funds. We’re excited to see individuals in the developing world take ownership of their vision for the future and are more than happy to follow their lead.

Sign our petition asking the co-chairs of the High Level Panel to listen to the world’s most vulnerable people in their plan to end extreme poverty.