USAID Leader Brings the Science

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January 25, 2011; Source: Washington Post | Nonprofits that work on international projects need to listen to the new strategy announced last week by Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The former staff member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation lambasted "development programs designed to be 'extended in perpetuity while goals remain just out of reach.'" He proposed that development programs should be structured so that USAID (and its contractors) are "replaced over time by efficient local governments, by thriving civil societies and by a vibrant private sector."

Obviously, he had Haiti in mind as an example where aid has bypassed "host-country systems and ministries and local institutions," with the result that well-intentioned development aid leaves Haiti underdeveloped and unable to manage its own affairs (as we also wrote here).

He also excoriated "high-priced" consultants always pitching conferences and training, a "practice [that] simply must end," Shah said. That would be nice to see. More troubling might be his proposal for vastly increased program evaluations. Although couching his proposal in funny stories about dopey, half-assed evaluations in the past, he called for a new evaluation protocol requiring third party evaluators with "study designs that explain what would have happened without our interventions so we can know for sure the impact of our programs," with results to be released three-months after contracts are completed.

Those study designs are scientific method studies, employing one or more control groups and other methods to generate what he hopes to see as "but for" findings. Shah is a former research scientist who ran the Gates vaccination programs. Evaluation models that look at the impact of vaccines in treated and control group populations are one thing, but similar evaluations of USAID-type projects on election rights, youth violence, and other non-technology interventions often yield mixed results and contradictory interpretations.

The one certainty of Shah's policy will be that USAID contractors, NGOs and for-profits alike, will be devoting a lot more staff and money to collecting data rather than delivering programs – that is, if USAID survives the Republicans' proposed budget cuts.—Rick Cohen