Rethinking Development Roles, Priorities and Processes

Rethinking Development Roles, Priorities and Processes

By: Samia Sekkarie

While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and accelerated many development challenges worldwide, it also presents an opportunity for development agencies to rethink their role in the development space, reevaluate their priorities, and reform their process for how to best achieve those priorities. As CID Faculty Director Asim Khwaja put it, "Sometimes you need a moment of crisis to push against the status quo towards a more innovative action-oriented strategy."

On March 26, 2021, Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at the Center for International Development at Harvard University hosted a panel entitled Incorporating Evidence in U.S. Development Policy and Programming. Sarah Rose and Erin Collinson from the Center for Global Development, and Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Asim Khwaja and Dani Rodrik discussed the latest development priorities and how they have been altered by the pandemic. The panelists, moderated by EPoD’s Faculty Director Rema Hanna, also discussed how the Biden administration and the pandemic present opportune moments for USAID, and the development space as a whole, to rethink these priorities and their strategies for pursuing them.  

Watch the full panel discussion or listen to a podcast interviewing panelist Sarah Rose. 

Rethinking Development Agencies’ Role 

The panelists discussed the opportunity for USAID, and development agencies more broadly, to reconsider their role in the global order in light of the pandemic. Private sector wealth is increasingly spearheading development efforts, there is a growing understanding of the need for local-led solutions, and institutions are no longer the only options for organizing with the rise of globalization and crowdsourcing. Consequently, development agencies’ conventional role as the conveners of knowledge, capital, and consensus is decreasing. What role can they play to remain valuable? Khwaja suggested development organizations help enable infrastructure to crowdsource local knowledge and private funding, and curate consensus, such as through online platforms. Within the bilateral development space, Rodrik mentioned the increasing need to consider USAID’s role in the context of growing development efforts by countries such as China.

"Sometimes you need a moment of crisis to push against the status quo towards a more innovative action-oriented strategy."

Asim I. Khwaja

Re-evaluating Priorities 

The panelists emphasized the importance of re-evaluating development priorities to ensure they progress beyond pre-pandemic norms. There is a huge appetite for change post-pandemic that development agencies can leverage to push more innovative priorities and programming. On a broad level, Rodrik mentioned the opportune moment the pandemic presents to step back and think very broadly about what USAID’s priorities are as an agency – what weight, if any, do they want national security to have in setting priorities compared to development priorities? Rose and Khwaja mentioned the opportunity, as USAID rethinks its strategies, for the agency to restructure how they set priorities, towards more nuanced, country-specific issues. Khwaja discussed the opportunity to leverage trends brought about by the pandemic, such as increased remote learning, to spearhead more digital interventions.  

Reforming Processes 

The panelists cited opportunities to leverage the Biden administration’s renewed commitment towards evidence-based policymaking for reforming USAID processes. Collinson noted that USAID has the right motives, but some of the institutions’ processes slow progress towards their intended objectives. The regulatory pressures at USAID may occupy some staff time that could instead be focused on meeting development objectives, and make it harder to work with local partners who may not have the capacity to abide by USAID requirements. Moreover, innovation is also inhibited by the nature of USAID funding – annual appropriations are often earmarked for specific sectors and regions that make long-term strategizing and innovation difficult.  

Rose also detailed the efforts USAID could undergo to enhance its decisions-making processes. USAID has made notable progress in pushing for more evidence-based decision making, through the establishment of the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, Development Innovation Ventures and other evidence-based units. However, there are still gaps in understanding how well aid programs work, evaluations—especially impact evaluations—remain rare, and incentives for evaluating a program often do not align with time and resource constraints. More can be done to increase the evidence base further. Rose suggested further resources and incentives for experimentation and testing, and using the procurement process to ensure programs are either based in evidence or incorporate opportunities to build evidence. In deciding what to evaluate, USAID can prioritize research in evidence gaps, while leveraging the wealth of existing evidence available from other institutions.  Where possible, USAID should invest more in faster and cheaper data sources, such as administrative data, and improve data collection quality. 

Watch the full panel discussion:

About Evidence for Policy Design  

At Evidence for Policy Design, we build the capacity of policy implementers and development partners to identify where evidence can enhance policy, how to find and interpret evidence that exists, and how to evaluate policies or programs where evidence does not yet exist. You can read more about our work on the about page.  

About the Panelists  

Erin Collinson is director of Policy Outreach at CGD. Prior to joining the CGD staff, she spent over five years working in the US Senate.  

Asim Ijaz Khwaja is the Director of the Center for International Development and Professor of International Finance and Development at the Harvard Kennedy School, and co-founder of the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP). His recent work ranges from understanding market failures in emerging financial markets to examining the private education market in low-income countries.  

Dani Rodrik is Professor of International Political Economy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has published widely in the areas of economic development, international economics, and political economy. His current research focuses on employment and economic growth, in both developing and advanced economies. 

Sarah Rose is a policy fellow at CGD. Her work, as part of the Center’s US Development Policy Initiative, focuses on US government aid effectiveness. Areas of research and analysis include US development policy in fragile states, the use of evaluation and evidence to inform programming and policy, the implementation of country ownership principles, the policies and operation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and aid transition processes. Previously, Sarah worked for USAID and MCC.