Two months ago, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Samantha Power jetted off to the UN climate summit in Glasgow to speak about the need to invest in climate. She juxtaposed droughts in Texas and the Horn of Africa; the former killed ten, the latter more than 250,000. “Developing countries urgently need…social-safety nets and insurance mechanisms that can protect families and help them bounce back when they lose crops and livestock,” she declared.
Unfortunately, USAID so far appears more prepared to grandstand than act. The problem is not cynicism: most USAID employees are not only earnest and dedicated but also frustrated at how their byzantine bureaucracy hampers rather than enables progress and how successive administrators have failed to reform the process. Rather, the problem remains a tendency to conflate spending with effectiveness. In one infamous example from 15 years ago, USAID spent 95 percent of its anti-malaria programming budget for Africa on overhead and consultants and only five percent in the field. A related problem is USAID’s continued failure to recognize and replicate best practices, even its own.
Africa, however, is replete with success stories to emulate. Rwanda, for example, recognized early the value of conservation and the power of the market. The country hit its nadir in 1994 after the anti-Tutsi genocide. Former poachers are now game wardens and guards at Volcanoes National Park, where tourists flock from around the globe to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. While farms surround the park, local families need not fear impoverishment should drought hit or crops fail: the tourist industry provides not only a lifeline but also a path to relative affluence for many in around the nearby town of Musanze. The result has been a dual environmental and economic success. It would be one easily replicated.