During my second reporting trip to Afghanistan in 2009, I spent some time with USAID personnel. I toured some of their projects and spoke with a number of them about their completed and ongoing programs.
I came away from that trip with the sense that while some of the work seemed completely reasonable in strategy, scope, and scale, many of the projects were overly ambitious, unnecessary, and often driven by the need to make it look like the agency was doing big and important things to help win the war. Projects seemed out of context in that they didn't seem to be what Afghans really needed at the time, or they were far to complex to be absorbed and maintained by a society with extremely high illiteracy rates and no functioning bureaucracy.
My time living in Afghanistan from 2012 through 2014 only reinforced those sentiments. Many USAID programs like social media summits and some of the "empowerment" programs seemed to be more about sizzle than steak. They were flashy, easy to promote, and looked good on the surface, but there wasn't much lasting substance.
That gets to what I found particularly frustrating about USAID: the agency generally could not show what the outcome of the work was. USAID officials regularly stated that outcome assessment was difficult (for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some not so much), and that instead the agency generally used output measures to show the success of the work--money spent, number of people who attended a training.
In my time working on the Lead Inspector General reports, I was constantly frustrated by the lack of outcome information USAID provided about its work in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Philippines, and Africa. I kept asking how the agency was making strategic decisions about what programs to fund, which ones to expand or discontinues, or how to change course if it was not assessing the outcomes of programs and weighing those outcomes against strategic objectives. I did not get satisfactory answers.
As I argue in this oped, USAID does vital stabilization and conflict prevention work around the world that needs to be supported, and in some cases expanded. But, it needs to do more to show that its work is furthering strategic objectives such as improving living conditions in communities in Iraq so that people are less likely to support terrorist groups. Foreign aid is routinely shortchanged by Congress, and USAID needs to be better at showing how its work is providing a return on investment.