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When Donor Driven Programs Work

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Next week the White House will host the first Africa Leaders' Summit. The Summit will focus on expanding U.S. support for Africa's democratic development and solidify America's commitment to the African people. The summit is a good opportunity for U.S. government aid agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to integrate new innovative solutions to water, energy, transportation and livelihood issues into their foreign aid programs.

USAID democracy and market reform programs have often been criticized for taking a donor driven approach to development. This criticism may be justifiable. However, "donor driven" approaches like USAID's support for women, youth and minorities have helped combat the social exclusion and protect the rights of these marginalized groups. For years, programs funded by USAID, ranging from rule of law to market reform, have been required to demonstrate how these groups benefit from their respective activities. As a result, there has been a marked improvement in social attitudes toward and government programs for women, youth and minorities in many emerging democracies. Could a similar USAID approach to issues of climate and their impact on global sustainability prove just as successful?

Recent United Nations and United States climate reports call for a global effort to successfully address climate change. Their findings recommend cross-sector changes in human behavior and public and private sector policies in areas including education, infrastructure, commerce, energy, water resource management and carbon dioxide emission, to name but a few. To support these changes, we need to transform our approach to development by inserting sustainability as an issue into all aid programs. The USAID system of "cross-cutting issues" is a good place to start. Although USAID implementing partners stick to their respective issue-specific sectors, USAID's cross-cutting issues have required all implementers to support vulnerable groups in their financial and programmatic activities. This has helped drive the host country to adopt economic, social and political policies to meet the needs of these vulnerable groups. The inclusion of sustainability as a cross-cutting issue in USAID programs could prove just as effective.

After all, why should we invest billions of US taxpayer dollars into market reform, healthcare, education and democracy programs around the world when scientists are telling us they will not stand the test of time unless we all do our part to reverse the tide? Carl Sagan's warning more than three decades ago resonates with our current situation: "Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something." Many universities in the U.S., like my employer Arizona State University, have answered the call by integrating sustainability across their curriculums. On the global level, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shaw has rightfully made climate change and energy efficiency priorities for his agency. But these are stand-alone projects. We need to go further.

In the past, rarely if ever has sustainability been a part of core USAID development programs. This can be changed. Legal development programs could include training for judges on environmental issues, thereby giving the courts better tools to review and decide on cases that may harm the health and wellbeing of society. Infrastructure programs can focus on environmentally-friendly "green" building design. Democracy and media programs can hold both corporations and governments accountable on such issues as carbon emission standards and waste management.

Lessons from international development efforts are plentiful. We are in a position to avoid mistakes, learn from what has failed and build on what has worked to spur developing countries into joining the global sustainability campaign. What better place to kick-start this new initiative than in Africa, which is facing daunting sustainability challenges ranging from water contamination to food shortages to rapid urbanization? USAID can help relieve some of the burden by including sustainability as a cross-cutting issue in all of its aid programs.

This would require us commit to the idea that sustainability challenges cannot be treated as "just another project." Donors and international development organizations often pay little attention to projects once they're completed, and tend to move on to the next one. This practice needs to come to an end, particularly in Africa. USAID should demand more creative ideas for longer-term commitments from its international implementing partners. This should include awards to international organizations based not only on thoughtful project design, but just as importantly, their strategy for staying involved in the country long after the USAID funding for the project has ended.

Ideally, USAID and other donors should make sustainability an umbrella aspect of their political, social and economic development programming. At a minimum, donors should include it as a sub-component in their diverse portfolio of aid programs. However, minimum as such a step may be, USAID is well positioned to drive both the international organizations, foreign governments and indigenous civil society organizations to take a more proactive role in creating a more sustainable future.

Fron Nahzi specializes in international development. The views expressed here are his own.