Is USAID about Aid or Development?

Guest blog by Lant Pritchett, Professor of the Practice of Economic Development, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University The name of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is too clever by half. By forming the acronym “aid” it attempts to create popularity (who could be against “aid” broadly interpreted as “assistance” to the world’s poorest?) at the expense of perhaps confusing everyone, including itself, about its actual mission. There are many ways of providing assistance to people in poor countries that do little or nothing to produce development. While we might all whole-heartedly agree that de-worming is demonstrated to be cost-effective assistance, its impact on development is, at best, tiny. An existential question the next leader of USAID has to face is whether USAID is about assistance—in whatever forms and for whatever goals political support can be mobilized and logistics can be arranged—or whether it really is an agency whose mission is to promote development.

The difference matters. One reaction to the critics of aid effectiveness who point to failures in development despite historically high and sustained levels of foreign assistance is to circle the wagons by arguing the goal of aid is just assistance, full stop. In this case the debate is only about whether aid is assistance: “Did this aid support an activity that has some positive benefit to human well-being?” This makes the question easy to address with available methods, likely to often produce a positive answer, and almost certainly irrelevant to development.

Development, for better or worse, has always been defined as a deliberate acceleration of modernization, conceived as a synchronized (if not simultaneous), complex, four-fold transition of economy, polity, administration, and society. Modernization is a one-word description of what the West accomplished from the nineteenth century onwards. Development, as accelerated modernization (which may or may not follow exactly the West’s historical trajectory or modalities), is what Japan accomplished following the Meiji Restoration, rising from an isolated backwater to global power; development is what Korea achieved from 1962 to today, rising from a poor, weak, powerless, post-conflict state to what it is today. The goals that are the aim of development—having a productive and prosperous economy, a polity guided by the wishes and in the interests of its citizens, a administratively capable state, a cohesive society—are desirable goals. Moreover, development is the only demonstrated and sustained way to achieve the objectives of increased well-being.

Being an agency for international development implies more than that the agency provides assistance to improve the well-being of individuals in countries that are not developed, but that the central goal of the organization is to promote development. Promoting economic development, for instance, means supporting actions and policies that create widespread opportunities for people to improve their incomes. Unfortunately, as any reader of this blog likely realizes, this is much more difficult—and much less photogenic—than planting the flag over the delivery of specific services addressing popular causes.

A new leader could make USAID exclusively about aid and focus on the narrowly prescribed goal of making aid effective assistance, but the real problem pressing the Obama administration is not that aid has not been effective assistance but rather that development needs to happen. Development needs to happen in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia, in Zambia, in Guatemala, in Bolivia—and continue to happen in India and China. Even addressing a series of important problems for well-being like vaccinations, schools for girls, HIV/AIDS prevention or malaria does not add up to a development agenda. If the next leader of USAID does not own that objective and mission—putting the big “D” in USAID and not just little “a” in aid—he or she is sealing USAID’s irrelevance.