Remarks by Administrator Gayle Smith at the Center for Global Development

Wednesday, December 7, 2016
The Obama Administration’s Development Legacy

Hello everybody, it’s really nice to be here and I want to thank CGD for putting a great event together.

I also want to thank a friend of mine, Nancy Birdsall,  for your extraordinary leadership. I remember when there wasn’t a CGD. And you have built this into an essential pillar for our community, bringing an enormous amount of evidence and experience to bear in tackling global challenges. And you may not know, but I think you’ve had an influence also on what we’ve done as an administration. Because what CGD’s done is insisted on rigor in our collective work; you’ve shined a light on the discipline of development. And by doing so, you’ve made all of us better, and our work smarter and more impactful.

So we're going to start by giving a shout out and some applause to Nancy.

I have to say this is a little bit weird; it feels like I’m sharing the last chapter in a memoir I haven’t written. That’s a plug to CGD; I just said nice things about you. I may want to write a book sometime.

But in seriousness, I wanted to be here today to tell a story, and it’s a story many of you know the pieces of, but I wanted to pull together because I think there is an extraordinary story to be told. Scott talked about the beginning of it. And he, by the way, was an extraordinary partner in that process and we’re still seeing the dividends of that, so thank you for that. But I think it’s an important time to tell a story.

Now I know all of you pay attention but as much as I would like it to be, the case is that most people don’t pay attention to the issues we work on or the agency I have the honor of serving. And for those who are not paying attention, it would be easy to have some assumptions in particular about USAID that simply don’t reflect the organization I know today.

I served on President Obama’s transition team in 2008, overseeing all of the foreign assistance agencies. I had worked at USAID before, so I knew a little bit of what to expect.

And I wasn’t surprised when we found an Agency filled with talented, dedicated professionals. I doubt that’s changed in the 55 years that AID’s been around.

Although the profile of development had been raised during the Bush Administration, we also found an organization that had been weakened institutionally over time. Its policy and budget functions had been removed. Trust and expectations of performance were low across the board.

Given all this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that USAID at the time was not a terribly confident and upbeat institution.

But, under President Obama’s leadership, we set out to change that. And eight years later, I am proud to report that the USAID of today is not your grandmother’s development agency.

In fact, USAID today is more capable and confident than ever before – confident enough to learn, and capable enough to improve. And that’s positioned us to get big and bold things done.

I was thinking about this a little bit last week. We had donuts in the office to celebrate my first year as Administrator. And donuts, as you probably know, tend to make one feel reflective.  

So I was there reflecting and I thought this time has gone really quickly – I mean, it’s been one year already – and so did the seven years of the Administration before that.

But we’ve got a lot to show for that time. And as much as some may hang on to an outdated image of a weakened USAID crippled by bureaucratic obstacles and other challenges, or to question the overall effectiveness of development, the numbers don’t lie.

  • 4.6 million lives saved. These are children and babies who are growing up and getting a real chance at life in no small part because the U.S. saw an opportunity and seized it. Because we saw kids dying of illnesses we could prevent, and diseases we could treat and did something about it. Because we followed the evidence, and made investments in proven interventions.

  • 9 million. These are the small farmers and other producers who used new technologies and practices to improve their harvests just last year through Feed the Future. These are the kinds of improvements that have led to drops in poverty between 7 and 36 percent in the areas where Feed the Future works, and helped producers, many of them women, boost their incomes by a combined $800 million in 2015.

  • 5,000 megawatts. In three years, Power Africa has already closed on enough transactions to generate that much electricity, and is tracking towards much more. And that’s because the U.S. chose to use the influence and expertise of our government to help connect people and communities to power for the first time. And in doing so, we are helping to steadily break down one of the biggest barriers to growth on the African continent.

  • And while we’re at it, here’s another really good Power Africa number: $54 billion. That’s how much we’ve mobilized in private and public commitments, starting with a U.S. commitment of $7 billion. So not only are we laying a foundation for transformative change, we’re not even footing the bulk of the bill.

  • 11.5 million. That’s how many people are on life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS through PEPFAR, up from 2.1 million when President Obama took office, and an AIDS-free generation is indeed within sight. That’s in no small part because of the leadership of not one, but two Presidents.

  • 60. That’s the average number of humanitarian crises USAID has responded to every year of this administration. 60. We’ve deployed 24 Disaster Assistance Response Teams – widely considered the best in the world, actually that’s a fact that’s not just an opinion – over the last eight years to coordinate U.S. efforts on major crises. We helped defeat Ebola in West Africa, took on severe food shortages in Ethiopia and Nigeria and natural disasters in Nepal, Haiti, and the Philippines. And we continue to respond to crises fueled by conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Iraq – in every case, saving lives and meeting urgent needs in the face of extraordinary obstacles.

We can point to results like this across the board. In unlocking opportunities for women and girls, in connecting communities to safe drinking water. In reinforcing the building blocks of democracy.

Unfortunately, I can’t take the credit. Well technically I could, because I’m the only one up here, but I won’t actually do that.

So many factors have driven this progress, and so many people have contributed to it, including many of you in this room today.

But I want to share what I think are the the five drivers that have contributed most to our success, in part to explain how we did it and in part because each of these, I think, will be essential to our success going forward.

The first is Presidential leadership. In Barack Obama, we have a leader who gets it. He understands development intimately; he has lived it. And what he has done is nothing short of extraordinary. I’m talking about major investments and global calls to action on food security, access to electricity in Africa, global health, innovation and more.

But even more than that, he sees the bigger picture. He saw the potential in a weakened USAID and called on his team to invest in it, strengthen it, elevate it and then expect it to deliver, and even to lead. And not surprisingly, I am proud to say that USAID has done both.

The President understands that development is a key instrument of American power, so he elevated it to be on par with defense and diplomacy. He understands that the development perspective offers key insights to inform policy discussions, so he brought USAID to the policy table. And he called on all of us to step up our game: to invest in research and innovation, to follow where the evidence leads, and to reduce dependence over the long term.  

That’s leadership, and it matters.

And it doesn’t only have to come from the White House; in fact it shouldn’t, and that isn’t enough. The second major driver of progress has been bipartisan support in Congress. And I will just say I look at people like Carol Peasley here, and who ever would have thought that development was going to be the space where we would register all of this bipartisan cooperation? Wouldn’t have thought that 15 years ago. That was back in the days when USAID was Washington’s favorite political football.

First emerging during the Bush administration around HIV/AIDS and malaria, we now have a consensus on development that I would almost call nonpartisan. And look at how it’s paid off. In a town that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for political harmony – especially of late – we have gotten some big things done.

The Electrify Africa Act – passed unanimously in both houses of Congress – codifies the principles of Power Africa. The Global Food Security Act – also overwhelmingly bipartisan – does the same for Feed the Future. The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act solidifies the gains we have made in building transparency, and building and improving monitoring and evaluation.

So these aren’t just Obama commitments anymore; they are American commitments, and that means they have lasting power.  

The third driver is meaningful collaboration across the government.

Now as Scott rightly says, if you haven’t been paying – or if you pay attention to this – when someone says interagency your eyes roll back in your head, your head falls off and rolls down the hallway.  But it’s important, and I know you all remember the chart that was done by Lael Brainard when she was at Brookings of the big spaghetti bowl that is the interagency.

Today I think intergovernmental collaboration looks a whole lot different than it used to. With Power Africa, we’ve got 12 federal agencies working together. With Feed the Future, it’s 11. And what we’ve done is bring all of the players and all of the tools to the same table, and we’ve figured out how to play to each Agency’s unique strengths and avoid duplication of effort. And it turns out, that’s when we’re at our most efficient, and when we can make big things happen.

USAID is honored to lead both of these initiatives. And we’re also proud to partner with our colleagues in a host of other areas. And with the other agencies also  engaged in development work we work together so seamlessly now that we can literally finish each other’s sentences. It’s a very, very different dynamic than I think it was 8 years ago.

And it goes even beyond that. Just last week, I was with Secretary Lew when he announced a joint fellowship program – Treasury, the State Department, and USAID all working together to step up U.S. efforts to connect poor people in the U.S. and around the world to tools and services that help them build credit, save, and plan for a secure financial future. I even made a pitch for Treasury’s budget from the stage. That did not used to happen. I made a pitch for ours too. With Commerce, we’re supporting African entrepreneurs. With the Department of Defense, we’ve gotten food and water to families displaced by Hurricane Matthew, and constructed Ebola Treatment Units in West Africa. With NASA, we’re arming vulnerable communities and local decision-makers with the best available climate projections.

The list goes on. And throughout all of this work, we’ve seen that when you worry more about the expertise and resources your Agency brings to the table, and less about who gets the credit, you get a whole lot more done. And that’s the way it should be.

The fourth driver is increased commitment and engagement of developing country leaders.

And I want to make a qualification here. Trust me, there is still an ample supply of leaders who are not making a sufficient commitment, but I do think we’ve got the emergence of a number of leaders who have made this a priority not because we’ve required it or conditioned our aid on it, but because they get its importance. And you know better and as well as anyone how essential this is.  

I think there are a growing number of  leaders out there who are rising to the challenge, and investing real political capital into this thing called development. Feed the Future, for example, was born in part out of African commitments – before we started Feed the Future – to reducing hunger and malnutrition, and today we’re seeing governments dramatically up their expenditures on agriculture.

We have national, local, and community leaders taking a stand against corruption, even in places where corruption is a way of life. We have governments setting ambitious goals for cutting maternal and child mortality, and meeting them. We have education ministers making serious investments in girls’ education, and host communities opening their arms ever wider to refugees.

These leaders are challenging the tired notion that development assistance necessarily breeds dependency. President Obama made it clear at the UN a few years ago how important that is when he said that “No country wants to be dependent on another. No proud leader in this room wants to ask for aid.”

That’s why I think our approach is working. By letting countries lead the way, we’re helping them exercise the muscles of governance while making an investment in long-term transformation.  

Now the fifth and final driver gets to all of you and that is the interest and engagement of a broader and more diverse constituency than ever before. I remember when something like this would have been a smaller event – impassioned, but smaller. Because all the success we have achieved as the U.S. Government has been as much because of the government as of our partners. The think tanks, scientists, and researchers who have helped forge a path laid by data and evidence. The big thinkers and entrepreneurs who have put their new ideas to work for others. The businesses that see opportunity where others see only risk. The NGOs, civil society, and interfaith groups that work every day to reach as many people as we can.

We have taken this on seriously and revitalized relationships with great institutions of higher learning. We have strengthened our bond with communities of faith. We have connected more deeply and broadly with small and minority-owned businesses. We have launched calls for open innovation, because we know that the next breakthrough solution could come from anywhere or anyone.  

The bottom line is this: This also isn’t your grandmother’s development coalition, and thankfully,  it’s not going anywhere come January. Right? Right.

So apparently, there’s a new Administration coming on board soon. Tracking that? And I can’t speak to what they are or are not going to do. But we do know what’s working, and we know that what’s working is always persuasive. And we also know that our community of partners is smart, caring, and passionate – and you know how to get things done.

So, if you’ll indulge me for another five. This is USAID’s  55th anniversary (last month), so I can have two lists of five – it’s kind of artful, don’t you think?

These are the five imperatives for the future, what I think are the must-dos for our community of what President Obama described at our White House Summit on Global Development as “the do-gooders.”

One. Grow the constituency. It’s there, it’s active, and it’s more diverse than ever, but it’s still too small. Because unfortunately, there are still too many people who think foreign aid makes up 20 percent of the budget instead of less than one. There are too many people who think USAID hasn’t evolved – or who don’t think about it all.

We have to reach them, and make them pay attention. And we need to communicate clearly and simply – which is code for saying don’t use too much development-speak – about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Growing the constituency also means nurturing the bipartisan consensus on development. It is strong, but as one of our colleagues said in a meeting the other day, it is also perishable. So we’ve got to grow that. For USAID’s part – and for all of our partners – that means offering accountability, transparency, and efficiency. It means striving to be better and better stewards of taxpayer dollars, so that we can earn the flexibility we need to do our jobs in a rapidly changing world.

Two. Diversify how we pay for development. I’m obsessed by this one. Traditional aid by itself doesn’t cut it anymore, and I think we’ve got ample evidence of that. And as you all know, it accounts for only about a tenth of financial flows to the developing world. Even if it was the big game changer, I don’t think we would want to limit ourselves to aid alone. We want to build economies where private capital can flow freely and responsibly, and where governments put more skin in the game in the form of dollars invested through their own budgets.

That’s the only way to sustain progress, and it’s the only way to answer President Obama’s call to reduce dependence over time. And I would add as a footnote of the many things I’ve seen as being effective with Congress: When we can say, “With this many dollars, we’ve leveraged this much in private capital,” that resonates and sticks.  

Three. We need to adapt our systems and institutions for the world we live in, one that’s sharp-edged and increasingly unpredictable. That includes USAID, which is why I’m so proud of how we’ve strengthened the Agency, and reinforced its core capabilities.

Taking a page out of CGD’s book, we have emphasized the discipline of development, launching an evaluation policy five years ago that’s not static but dynamic – able to adapt and improve the more we know and the more we learn. And more impressive than the 1,400-plus evaluations we have conducted since then is the shift in culture that this new policy has fostered. We are constantly looking for ways to improve. We have the confidence to recognize when things aren’t right, and the know-how to fix them.

This is a change that extends well beyond the project level. My predecessor and friend Raj Shah launched USAID Forward to initiate a series of reforms to make our Agency more accountable, transparent, and nimble. Many of the specific reforms have been institutionalized since then, while others – like local capacity building – will and should remain a priority for years to come. So we’re adding new ones, because we approach reform just like we approach development: We can always learn more, and can always do better.

We’ve also embraced diversity in all of its forms, including by establishing a landmark policy that bars all recipients of U.S. aid dollars from discriminating against beneficiaries on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, or any such category. And we’re building a more diverse workforce, because we know it makes us stronger.

We’ve revamped our security operations and IT systems, and we’ve begun a long-term investment in our people through a human resource transformation. We want to make sure we can retain the people we need, and give our people the support they need to do their jobs well. And we do this not as a political act, but as a commitment to build our federal institutions and give back to the career men and women who serve them so well.   

That brings me to four. Strategic patience. In massive supply here. Look, I think we know that transformation takes time and it’s worth the wait. And it’s one thing to achieve impact when all the conditions are lined up and ripe for positive development outcomes, but more often they’re not.

USAID works in some of the toughest environments imaginable, and often places in the midst of transition, where the essential building blocks of progress never existed or have been eroded. We need – and Washington needs – the strategic patience it takes to support transitions for the long term, and to give transformation the time it needs to bloom.

And five is that we invest in our shared future, even as we respond to the urgency of right now. There’s no question the world is a pretty scary and volatile place right now, even when set against a backdrop of global progress on development. We’re living in a time where a disease can spread across an ocean in a single plane ride, and the effects of long-lasting, complex crises and conflicts are spilling across borders.

And when new threats and crises flare up, we have to respond – as a country, and as a community of partners – with the same urgency and professionalism we always do. And the demand is growing; for the last two years, we have often had five  DARTs operating in the field at the same time. The prior, previous average 10 or 15 years ago was one-and-a-half. A couple of times this year we’ve had six in the field at the same time.

We can’t abdicate our responsibility to meet our humanitarian obligations, but it is equally important that we keep an eye to the future. Because the only way to get ahead of many of these crises is through long-term sustainable and inclusive development. That requires that strategic patience. That’s why we are prioritizing investments in resilience, so vulnerable people and communities have the core capacities they need to withstand the external shocks we know are coming.

This isn’t going to be easy, but looking back on the last eight years, I can proudly say that we have an Agency, and a Government, and a global coalition that is capable of tackling the hard and confident enough to pursue the bold.

I am extremely proud of what we’re leaving behind, and of the men and women who have made USAID what it is today.

It’s my sincere hope that many years from now, all that we have done will not be seen as just Barack Obama’s legacy, although I think that has a very nice ring to it. My hope is that it will also be seen as the continuation of a powerful American legacy, another chapter in a longstanding tradition of U.S. development leadership.  A consequential chapter to be sure, but still just one of many.

Because what we’re doing is so much bigger than any one person or group. And it’s so much bigger than any one of us.

We’re working toward a world where opportunity abounds, and no one is left behind. Where women and girls get back all that they give, and their progress lifts up everyone around them. Where people like USAID’s own Xulhaz Mannan, who was killed earlier this year in Bangladesh, can live and love freely, without fear of persecution or violence. A world where democratic institutions are as strong as communities are resilient, and where families have a safety net to get through the tough times.

We’re working toward a world where peace is possible, if we just pursue it with the dogged determination of the Colombian people. A world where – with the unapologetic ambition of the people of Burma – dreams of reform can become reality. Where ordinary people – like the White Helmets in Syria, digging through the rubble to find the living among the dead – don’t have to become heroes.

That’s a world worth the work it takes to get there. And by building on what came before us and leaving something stronger and better behind, I think we’re moving closer and closer to it.

There are always going to be reasons to be cynical, especially when you go looking for them.

But today, I am actually more hopeful than ever. That’s because of the men and women of USAID, whom I’ve been deeply honored to serve alongside. And it’s because of all of you, and our partners across the globe who serve others with passion, respect, intelligence and skill. It’s because of the amazing things we have done together, and the amazing things we still have to do.

Thank you.