By Mónica de Pinto Ribeiro Hancke, August 23, 2017 —

The United States’ foreign assistance program is in need of reform. This is broadly considered a nonpartisan issue in the U.S. Most international development experts recognize that the system through which the U.S. government makes decisions about funding for poverty alleviation, humanitarian assistance, and human rights programs in developing countries is bloated, bureaucratic, and too far removed from local expertise.

Neither U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor representatives from the Trump administration have publicly called for a drastic revamp of the U.S. foreign assistance program. But, when the administration’s “skinny budget” proposed to slash the foreign affairs budget by 32 percent in March, rumors of a Department of State and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) “merger” or  “restructure” or “redesign” began to swirl.

I saw this as an opportunity to reform a system badly in need of change. Grassroots groups have been telling us for years that they are regularly left out of USAID development initiatives in their own countries. Advocates from our network’s 300 grassroots women’s rights and gender equality organizations in over 50 countries tell us that USAID country missions rarely communicate with civil society. These groups, experts on their own communities that do “development work” every day, are excluded from participating in making decisions about that same work. They report that local civil society groups generally don’t receive USAID grants or contracts so that they are unable to direct funds to what their communities need most. This means that valuable expertise — about how to most effectively use U.S. foreign assistance dollars — is lost.

I was hopeful that any adjustment to the current structure governing U.S. foreign assistance would lead to a modernization that would include civil society, and our knowledge, perspectives, and experience.

Like most civil society organizations, Women Thrive Alliance saw an opportunity to align the U.S. foreign assistance program with the realities of world affairs and our development aspirations enshrined in global frameworks and commitments such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

We joined with the community of other international development organizations in Washington, D.C. to raise our voices for this reform and specifically outlined recommendations for how the Department of State and USAID could improve their work.

Unfortunately, their process for gathering feedback on this issue has replicated the very patterns that we sought to change. Civil society has been largely left out of the conversation about U.S. foreign assistance reform.

Since day one, this process that has been defined as “employee-led” and designed to boost “efficiency and effectiveness” has been a closed-door scenario. Civil society participation has been insultingly tokenistic. A recent “Fact Finding and Information Sharing” session was convened that sidelined civil society representatives and did not allow them to participate in the process meaningfully. Too many questions were left unanswered, and civil society representatives were given the impression that their expertise was neither needed nor wanted.

How are the Department of State and USAID supposed to be more efficient and effective if they are not learning from those who are impacted most by their work? An inclusive process must be chosen.

U.S.-based international NGOs who are easily accessible and open to cooperation should have been incorporated from the beginning. What could have been an extremely productive 90 minutes of genuine knowledge sharing and feedback resulted in, as Foreign Policy described, a “seething” back and forth between the leads of the “Transformation Team” and civil society organizations asking pointed questions and receiving vague answers. Similarly, a multiple choice survey with prescribed answers to back up the so-called employee-led process implied that the first attempt to engage civil society was merely checking off a box — the tokenistic “consultation” with civil society.

Additionally, a process, by all accounts, is measuring the temperature of U.S. engagement with and in other countries, cannot be restricted to Americans. This excludes those who will, arguably, be the most impacted by system reform: the civil society organizations that are hypothetically pinpointed to implement, coordinate, and support said U.S. funded international programs around the world.

Based on the “Fact Finding and Information Sharing” meeting conveners’ reluctance to answer if similar meetings were taking place at USAID missions in developing countries, one can assume that local civil society organizations are not be consulted. A top-down, US-based reform process of agencies whose constituents reside in the Global South is nonsensical. Organizations implementing and affected by USAID programs have indispensable local knowledge and expertise that should be leveraged. Furthermore, they should not only be consulted but actively involved in designing, conducting, and implementing a redesign that meets their needs and ensures that development programming is most effective. Doing so reinforces the integrity, relevance, and sustainability of the process. It supports the reputation of the U.S. as a leader in international development and diplomacy.

There have been significant missed opportunities to build a department and agency that will make U.S. foreign assistance effective and transformational. I worry about the future of U.S. foreign assistance and development of the total foreign affairs budget is to be cut by 32 percent, humanitarian assistance by 44 percent, nine USAID country missions to close, and the Emergency Refugee and Migration Account to be zeroed out. But I also worry about the future of a development program that has not learned from its mistakes and listened to the local expertise of grassroots civil society. That represents a deeper, systemic issue that must be heeded and reformed.