Turning a Policy into Practice -- Five Steps to Implementing USAID Urban Policy

IDG Highlight, October 31, 2013 - Washington, DC: Today USAID released its new policy on "Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World.” The policy articulates a set of concerns about urbanization in developing countries and its effect on poor people and posits a set of ambitions for USAID’s work, among others, to “build good governance,” encourage innovative and cost-effective service delivery,” and “help countries apply pro-poor service delivery models.”

As the policy notes, every week 130,000 people in developing countries move to urban areas. These people are, in effect, voting with their feet, seeking greater opportunity in urban areas by moving from the rural areas that have been USAID’s traditional target. Of course this is a challenge, but the increased concentration of households provides an opportunity for reducing the cost of public services and offers a unique opportunity for accelerating the rise out of poverty for old and new urban residents alike.  Less <<

At the same time, the policy needs to be supplemented with indications of what the agency will actually do to improve service delivery. Understandably, much of the policy attends to how this policy fits within existing bureaucratic responsibilities and other priorities of the current USAID leadership.

In order to accelerate the implementation of this policy, based on two decades of Urban Institute work in urban areas and with local governments around the world, here are five suggestions as USAID staff starts to implement today’s policy:

  1. Provide on-the-ground USAID mission staff and counterparts analytic tools to understand the causes of urban service delivery failures. 
  2. Invest in sustainability - do not ignore the difficult-to-change but underlying institutional arrangements.
  3. Take account of the intergovernmental context – urban services exist in a national fiscal, administrative and political context. Solutions call on cooperation from other levels of government and private actors both.
  4. Think beyond project accountability to urban accountability systems. Evaluate the impact of projects on systems that need to be sustained over time, not just on today’s beneficiaries.
  5. Capitalize on USAID’s field presence to lead a donor learning agenda on how to sustainably strengthen urban services.

As USAID now works to put feet and force under this policy, they will do well to increase the initial efforts to call on a wide range of needed expertise beyond knowledge of effective measures for improving the provision of public services such as healthcare, education, transportation, and the like.

Our experience suggests two critical questions that need to be addressed by future research: 
(1) Do we understand the political, administrative and fiscal context -- and its trajectory – in which public services will be delivered? and 
(2) As we begin to produce reams of data, including that generated by new technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), do we have clear ideas about who we expect to use the data and how it will be used to affect the changes needed to improve service delivery?