Prior to joining the administration, I was already familiar with many of USAID’s development successes: preventing devastating famines by helping launch the Green Revolution, providing safe drinking water to over a billion people, promoting democratic transitions in Eastern Europe after the Cold War.
But I was also familiar with some of the agency’s recent struggles; across its five decades, the agency had been weighed down by bureaucracy and set back by staffing cuts. Having come from a private philanthropic organization, I was concerned with how quickly a large government institution could deliver results. But in the first week of the job, my perceptions changed.
On January 12—five days after I was sworn in—a 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, leveling Haiti’s capital and killing hundreds of thousands of people. In the wake of the destruction, President Obama entrusted USAID to lead a swift, aggressive and coordinated response on behalf of the United States.
As I walked into the command center on the top floor of our building, surrounded by members of our military, diplomatic corps and crisis response teams from USAID and several other agencies, I realized just how quickly our government could act. Side-by-side, we analyzed satellite images of the damage, determined our best chances to reach survivors and plotted a rapid whole-of- government relief effort.
Crises often bring clarity—a sense of urgency that leaves no room for hesitation or red tape. Either you act or people die. As USAID staff launched the largest humanitarian relief and search-and-rescue efforts in history, the speed, skill and dedication they showed was awe- inspiring. They responded quickly, overcame bureaucratic hurdles, worked inclusively with a broad range of partners and made smart, calculated choices to get better outcomes.
For instance, one of our Haiti response leaders had read a behavioral economics study that found people were more likely to purify emergency supplies of water if they received chlorine tablets at the point of distribution, rather than afterwards as had traditionally been done. So when we hired firms to provide water to earthquake survivors, we wrote into their contracts a requirement to distribute chlorine tablets as well.
As a result, water was cleaner in Port-au-Prince and there were fewer cases of diarrheal disease than before the earthquake struck. While this intervention didn’t prevent an outbreak of cholera from reaching the capital, it had a significant role in limiting its spread.
Time and again, similar acts of ingenuity drove home the effectiveness of USAID’s talented ranks. It was clear our Agency could achieve even better results if we aggressively reformed the way we worked—in Haiti and around the world.
Last September, I had the honor of attending the United Nations General Assembly to witness a historic event: President Obama announcing our country’s first ever policy on global development.
“The past half century has witnessed more gains in human development than at any time in history,” he said. “Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from extreme poverty.
“Yet,” he said, “we must also face the fact that progress…has not come nearly fast enough.”
To deliver results more quickly, President Obama stressed that our foreign assistance must increasingly be directed toward countries committed to good governance and focused on delivering sustainable, private sector-led economic growth. To lead that mission, he committed to “rebuild the United States Agency for International Development into the world’s premier development agency.”
To fulfill that pledge, we launched a series of reforms we call USAID Forward, developed as part of the first-ever review of our country’s development and diplomacy operations called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Spearheaded by Secretary Clinton, this Review provides a blueprint that is crucial to improving America’s use of civilian power.
The reforms outlined in this Review weren’t designed to return our Agency to its glory days, they were designed to do something greater: create a modern development enterprise. By making our Agency more efficient, more effective and more business- like, we could free our talented staff to deliver better outcomes.
To leverage the impact of our investments, we made difficult tradeoffs, focused more heavily on local investment and harnessed the transformative power of science, technology and innovation.
We proposed eliminating bilateral development assistance to 11 countries, making tough calls to end assistance in places where weak governance or corruption undermined its effectiveness, or where rapid growth made it unnecessary. Tracking these investments is now easier than ever thanks to a new, transparent Web site—foreignassistance.gov—that visually displays our entire portfolio of foreign assistance, broken down by country and program.
To deliver lasting growth, we introduced the most significant revisions to our contracting policies in our Agency’s history and are prioritizing new business models to deliver greater assistance to local entrepreneurs and organizations.
For instance, our Development Credit Authority encourages banks with conservative lending practices to provide loans to underserved but creditworthy customers in developing countries, allowing us to generate $28 of private capital for every $1 we invest. Through this mechanism, we’ve turned an investment of just $82 million into $2.3 billion to support development and entrepreneurship in over 64 countries.
As the people in developing countries stand up, USAID can stand down, allowing our assistance to be replaced over time by vibrant markets, strong civil societies and efficient, accountable local governments.
Our efforts in Haiti over the last year were emblematic of these new approaches.
Instead of rebuilding devastated brick-and-mortar banks, we partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a mobile banking revolution in the country. Prior to the earthquake, 90 percent of Haitians had never set foot inside a bank. But 60 percent of all Haitians do own cell phones. By allowing Haitians to save money and make transactions on their cell phones, we’re encouraging local wealth creation that is crucial to building a vibrant economy while preventing the wage-skimming and corruption that can undermine growth.
And rather than pay foreign companies to construct prefabricated homes, we trained Haitian construction companies to build their own durable housing using local materials, to a higher standard of safety than prior to the earthquake.
The challenges that remain in Haiti are still great, and the road to building the country back better than before will take significant time and effective local leadership. But the resilience of the Haitian people should leave us all hopeful about the country’s future.