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What have you seen as the biggest challenges thus far for effective DEIA implementation in international development work and what can USAID do to strike a balance with the at-times competing priorities of localization, DEIA, and socio-economic set-asides for US-based organizations?
Throughout history, democracies have very rarely gone to war with each other. As a result, one of the underlying assumptions of US-led international development work is that the proliferation and strengthening of stable, pluralistic democracies throughout the developing world serves the enlightened self-interest of the American people. Improving the ability of the people living in USAID mission countries to shape their own destinies runs like a brightline throughout successive US Presidential Administrations. While “locally led”, the “Journey to Self Reliance”, and “localization”, aren’t exactly the same, they rhyme. In addition to diversifying USAID’s own workforce, DEIA initiatives incorporated into the program cycle have the potential to strengthen the pluralistic societies in which USAID operates and build the foundations for more effective democratic governance, which in turn contributes to the peace and security of the world. In some ways, USAID has a more difficult challenge than other organizations in implementing DEIA because it has to think in these multiple dimensions. Most organizations can settle for diversifying their own workforces. USAID needs to think about that plus how to diversify its programming without losing political support in the US and in its mission countries.
I have written previously about the importance of finding balance across three at-times competing priorities: good development outcomes, good US foreign policy outcomes, and good US socio-economic outcomes. DEIA should fit soundly into the top circle of Diagram 1 by giving voice to ethnic, religious, racial, and other minorities. At the same time, development professionals must be careful not to impose a US-lens on what constitutes a minority and what unintended consequences may result from empowering people that traditional elites may have previously excluded. If you agree with my supposition that stable, pluralistic democracies serve the foreign policy interests of the United States, then balancing the top circle with the circle on the right should be easy. In practice, though, it often is not. Short term stability often competes with pluralistic and democratic. Throughout the Cold War, the US government often chose stable and autocratic but reliably anti-communist over unstable, democratic, and potentially Soviet-leaning. Existing governments can and will become very averse to having USAID programs in their countries if they think those programs will destabilize them.
The third circle of socio-economic outcomes are no less important than the other two. The US Congress and Presidential Administrations have chosen to prioritize certain US socio-economic goals and codified them into law or regulation. These include preferential treatment in government procurement for certain types of business and nonprofits as well as improving economic growth at home. Government procurement sets aside a certain amount of money from each agency for purchasing from minority-, veteran-, or women-owned businesses. These “set-aside” programs intend to benefit traditionally under-served communities in the US by helping their business owners start new firms and build wealth. US tax law and the Federal Acquisition Regulations also give preferential treatment to nonprofit organizations to further their missions. Lastly, the US government prioritizes promoting trade that benefits US-based firms and workers to promote domestic economic growth. These priorities have the intrinsic values touched on above and they also help to provide political support for international development. Without them, bipartisan support for USAID and its peers would be in jeopardy.
So, what can USAID do to balance all these priorities? First, become aware of the need to keep them in balance. Don’t let any one set dominate the others. Second, co-create strategies and programs with people and organizations that represent all three circles. Use USAID programs to give voice and agency to traditionally underserved populations but do so in an open and transparent manner with country-governments at the table when possible/practical. Lastly, restructure the USAID procurement pipeline to give small and minority-, veteran-, and women-owned firms a greater role. Right now most USAID contracts are clustered below $5 million or above $30 million, creating a vast chasm that most small firms can’t cross which leads to a concentration of business going to traditional USAID contractors. Many of these smaller firms are led by people from underserved communities themselves and have an interest in seeing more people like them at the table making decisions which should produce better development outcomes.
USAID has a tough balancing act to perform but through the patience and dedication of its incredible people, it will persevere.
*Full disclosure: CollaborateUp is a minority-owned firm participating in the SBA’s 8(a) Program and receives contracts under that program.