Making Room in the Development Sandbox

The era of Western run foreign assistance is over. Throughout the history of foreign assistance, big development agencies like USAID have called the shots, touting stories of untrustworthy governments and issues of national security as justifications for entirely Western run development schemes.  The rise of South-to-South cooperation and support from developing economies has shifted power in the world of international development. There are many articles that either sing the praises of USAID or tear it down; this is neither. Policy makers must recognize a new wave in international development and consider alternative options to government assistance.

North-to-South aid relationships have been the status quo for as long as foreign assistance has existed. In the past, the North provided the funds, personnel and program structure, and the South provided the location and beneficiaries. But the dynamic is shifting.  Power blocs of emerging economies–like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS)–are the new frontiers of global development.  On the growing list of South-to-South programming, Thailand is granting loans to Cambodia, India has started technology sharing programs, and Brazil started infrastructure programs in Paraguay.

In terms of real numbers, the U.S. is still the global leader in ODA and money contributed to foreign assistance, but we aren’t very popular. A number of academics from “developing” countries recently criticized the heavy hand of the United States in foreign assistance programming and decried what they refer to as the “cycle of dependency.” Thinly veiled arguments against South-to-South programming have also emerged from Western development heavies like Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier. These practitioners are disputing academics, like Zambia’s Dambisa Moyo, who have called for an African run development plan.

Internationally and domestically, USAID is no stranger to criticism. In 2011, 156 Republican Congressmen called for a drastic defunding of the agency. While defunding one of the largest development agencies in the world may seem brash and ill advised, it is clear that people are displeased with the current norm in development. Recently, USAID came under fire for poor financial accountability and low program achievement. In 2014, an audit of a $88.5 million program in Afghanistan detailed low objective achievement and possibly misappropriated funds. A financial audit, however, could not be conducted due to a lack of funds.

All of this is not to say that USAID is the enemy, the agency has achieved tremendous feats: 850,000 people have been reached through the HIV/AIDS prevention program and 15 million primary school children have been targeted and included in global literacy programs. The emergence of a new development dynamic is not a goodbye to USAID. As South-to-South Cooperation continues to grow, surely USAID will grow and change with it.

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