New principles for global development

From September to December 2023, Unlock Aid went on a global listening to convene hundreds of stakeholders for a series of discussions to ask: “If we could redesign the U.S. approach to global development, what would we do differently?”

We presumed we would likely reach different conclusions in the 2020s that we did when we first built global development systems in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Based on what we heard, we've now published a new “Principles for Global Development” to outline the way the United States must change the way it partners with countries and communities around the world.

Listening Tour Key Dates

Illustrated map of continents with colored pins on event locations
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New York, NY, USA
September 17, 2023
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DAKAR, Senegal
Science Saves Lives Conference
October 8, 2023
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AfriLabs Annual Gathering
October 12, 2023
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San Francisco, CA, USA
October 27, 2023
5:00-7:00PM PT
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ridgecrest, nC, usa
October 18, 2023
8:00AM – 5:00PM
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Seattle, WA, US
Global Washington Goalmakers Conference
December 7, 2023
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miami, fl, usa
Innovation Conference
September 13, 2023
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Washington D.C., USA
Final Convening

New Principles for Global Development


It’s long past time to reimagine and reshape the U.S. approach to global development and build a new model fit for the 21st century. International systems largely built in the aftermath of World War II cannot keep up with the many interconnected challenges we face.

This is a critical year. In the U.S., the 2024 presidential campaign is underway. Races for the U.S. House and Senate are also picking up steam. Around the world, more than 2 billion people will have the ability to vote in more than 70 democratic elections, from presidential and parliamentary elections in Europe to national polls in India, Indonesia, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico and some 50 other countries. The people of the world will determine their future, politically, socially, and economically.

Now is the time to propose what a new U.S. approach to global development can look like. A new model grounded in a vision of abundance can advance socioeconomic progress in the U.S. and around the world and solve some of the biggest challenges facing our planet.

From September - December 2023, Unlock Aid traveled to communities across continents as part of a global listening tour to ask: “If you could redesign the U.S. approach to global development, what would you do differently?”

We spoke with hundreds of organizations and local community leaders, next-generation small businesses and nonprofit social enterprises, multinationals, faith leaders, diaspora community members, investors, political leaders and so many others to develop the below principles and next steps for action.

The U.S. can be a partner of first choice for countries to achieve global challenges, we heard, but its current global development systems are incompatible with a vision of true equity, innovation, abundance and agility. The U.S. needs a new way forward. As American statesman Adlai Stevenson once said, “We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.”

A new, more abundant U.S. approach to global development should be centered on decentralizing decision-making and transferring resources to local and proximate communities, investing far more resources in ways that promote sustainable economic growth, decoupling humanitarian response from long-term development investments, and better leveraging innovation to solve the hardest problems of our time. The U.S. needs to restructure its global development architecture to achieve this vision, complete with new mission statements, new human resources systems, greater transparency, a mandate to act with greater urgency and agility, and an orientation toward delivering results. Underpinning all of these principles, the U.S. must also lead by example and hold itself accountable to the same standards that it expects and demands of others.

Trust in our democratic systems depends on U.S. public institutions’ ability to show results that are responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people, organizations, communities, and countries they are built to serve. Thank you for participating in this process with us.

Principle 1: Approach immediate humanitarian aid differently than longer-term economic development investment.

Populations and places experiencing humanitarian crises, from war and natural disasters to hunger and homelessness, continue to have critical, immediate needs that will require support from international and local humanitarian first responders. Every person everywhere in the world deserves to live a life free of violence, fear and precarity. While the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) existing humanitarian response infrastructure is well-designed to serve short-term rapid response needs, the U.S. humanitarian aid budget increasingly funds interventions in long-term crises with a lack of understanding of the social, political and cultural implications of a country’s or region’s own history. We know that communities closer to the issues know the solutions they need and must be in the driver’s seat of decision-making. USAID must transition the management of these long-term needs to local actors and set clear, time-bound goals to do so. The U.S. cannot do this alone; other nations must share the responsibility for long-term funding.

At the same time, most of the countries the U.S. government provides development assistance to that are not experiencing humanitarian crises are ready to transition their relationships away from grant- and aid-based models to ones focused on promoting broad-based sustainable economic growth rooted in sound industrial policies. Evidence shows that investments in economic development do far more to improve sustainable development outcomes than project-driven ones.

Principle 2: Approach immediate humanitarian aid differently than longer-term economic development investment.

The U.S. needs to evolve how it invests globally, with a much greater focus on creating opportunity, building markets and forging genuine partnerships with countries and communities around the world. Currently, it primarily uses foreign aid as a short-term tool that results in low-impact projects with poorly focused resources. To change this, the U.S. should transition most global development investments away from project-based aid in favor of more sustainable, country- and community-led models and make more investments that grow the private sector and promote sustainable economic development.

In sectors like power, health, water and sanitation, food and digital infrastructure, for example, the U.S. should administer significantly more global development funding via compacts where the U.S. and the country receiving funding create joint corporations to achieve clearly defined, measurable goals, share costs, and jointly select and pay service providers against delivery of results. The U.S. should also support countries to develop industrial policies focused on promoting economic growth, make investing in the private sector the predominant way the U.S. supports countries with higher-state capacity, and better promote greater integration and two-way investments between the U.S. and other countries.

Rather than issuing complex public tenders and requests for proposals that only large government consultants can compete for, U.S. global development agencies should increasingly use:

Principle 3: Position the U.S. as a partner of first choice for any country that wants to leverage innovation to advance their development goals and grow strategic sectors.

Here and around the world, the next generation of community leaders, scientists and entrepreneurs is already building the digital and innovation economy. They want to see corresponding public investments to meet their ambition, including in enabling infrastructure, education, and research and development (R&D). While the U.S. is seen globally as an innovation power, its global development institutions are often stuck continuing the way they’ve always done things, or they invest in innovation only at the margins, failing to adequately respond to the scale of today’s needs.

Instead, these institutions should take a page out of the playbook of U.S. public sector investments in innovation in other sectors. Programs like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program have transformed the U.S. economy and given birth to the technologies that have propelled major U.S. companies like Apple. The IRA and CHIPS Act portend to generate an influx of billions of dollars for R&D in the fields of semiconductors, advanced computing and clean energy.

Now is the moment for the U.S. to adopt proven innovation models to support global partners to build their own innovation ecosystems, develop and commercialize technologies to address the world’s biggest challenges, and create new markets and 21st century jobs. It can do this by:

Principle 4: Create the systems and infrastructure that position countries to thrive sustainably and independently.

Over the past 60 years, the U.S. foreign aid sector has become a cottage industry made up of a small number of Washington, D.C.-based contractors that are experts in the business of winning government contracts — with no or few incentives to eliminate the conditions that allow foreign aid to persist. Too often, U.S. global development agencies direct funding to these contractors to build capacity rather than just working directly via perfectly capable local firms.

Instead, U.S. agencies must make an overarching focus of global development investments over the next decade to transition our model away from a charity-based one in favor of a system that enables countries to manage their own systems, whether via the public or private sector. Every U.S. development investment must have a strategy to transition the ownership, management and funding away from U.S. actors to local actors and, for programs where there is not a realistic pathway for local funding, a strategy that requires that other donors match U.S. investments within a time-bound window.

This would additionally apply to successful U.S. global development programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which — while successful — have become too dependent on U.S. funding and therefore vulnerable to the whims of an unpredictable U.S. Congress. Future PEPFAR funding, for example, could instead fund health insurance schemes that are easy for governments and other funders to co-invest in, supporting population health needs and creating realistic pathways to transition funding and management to local partners.

We know that communities around the world know what they need to bring about the change they need. Firsthand experience and local expertise is indispensable to address our world’s biggest challenges. Transitioning to models that put local actors in the lead is critical to stepping back from paternalistic tendencies that have often caused more harm than good due to the lack of emphasis on community leadership and deep listening or that have displaced or distorted the very markets and communities that global development institutions were initially built to support.

Principle 5: Lead by example.

Most importantly, underpinning each of the above four principles, what the U.S. demands of others it must first do itself. The U.S. cannot fund and defend destructive forces around the globe while simultaneously claiming to support democracy, human rights and development and expect the rest of the world to take it seriously. The U.S. can’t insist that it cares about peace and the planet while engaging in exploitation and extraction. It can’t claim to be helping to prevent the next pandemic while it also hoards excess vaccines and essential medicines.

The U.S. is inconsistent and hypocritical when it advocates that other countries invest sustainably, decarbonize and embrace transparency yet does not hold itself to these same standards. The U.S. is a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, yet it is one of just five countries that refuses to conduct a Voluntary National Review to track the progress it makes each year toward achieving those goals. Too many of the U.S.’s own companies run global businesses that perpetuate the worst forms of human trafficking and slave labor or destroy critical ecosystems.

As the U.S. rebuilds its global development architecture, it must act with humility and lead by example, recognizing that it also has its own long way to go to realizing its development goals, and to hold itself accountable to the same demands it makes of others.

So what do we do now? Here’s how to translate these principles into action

Unlock Aid was founded as a coalition of doers. We’re not content to just propose ideas and hope that others will do the work. That’s why we’re already working with Congress and leading presidential campaigns to translate these principles into action. We’re entering a period of possibility, where long-held beliefs about the way things always work are rapidly changing. As the adage goes, “change happens gradually, then suddenly.” Now is the time to propose and build a new, more abundant way forward.

To realize this vision, the U.S. needs to restructure its global development agencies, complete with new mission statements; greater transparency; a transformation toward delivering results; and a mandate to act with greater urgency, agency and agility to embed the above principles into policy and practice.

Transformational change is essential for progress. With new mission statements grounded in these principles will come clearer and more measurable goals. New policies that embrace greater transparency and accountability must ensure that U.S. government global development investments deliver and pay for results. Hiring processes, incentives and performance management must change too, with a focus on building and retaining a more diverse, next-generation workforce and leadership that includes different perspectives, backgrounds, expertise, skills sets and attitudes to inspire a new business culture that embraces urgency, equity, innovation, agility and experimentation. This is the only way to ultimately drive long-term behavior change.

The bulk of longer-term development assistance funding should flow through models that promote more broad-based, sustainable economic growth and that put community-led solutions and leadership at the forefront. The U.S. should repurpose USAID to take a more explicit focus on humanitarian, human rights and democracy activities, while the vast majority of the rest of the U.S.’s longer-term development assistance should flow through models that promote private sector and economic development, including via the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

The U.S. should continue to make robust contributions to multilateral and international agencies that can demonstrate a track record of results and cost sharing with other countries. It should use its influence in these agencies to direct them to devolve more funding and decision-making agency to country- and community-level organizations and do more to embrace innovation.

Funding allocations to different agencies (e.g., USAID, DFC, MCC) will need to change, with a much greater share of U.S. foreign assistance allocated to the latter two. Further, to allow agencies like the MCC to absorb and spend additional resources, Congress will need to enable the agency to spend funds in new ways. This includes working more at the subnational level and across multiple countries or signing compacts with specific ministries with strong governance systems. Congress should also expand the list of countries that can receive MCC funding by revisiting income, scorecards and other eligibility requirements. Congress must also address ways for the DFC to absorb and spend greater funds, such as by addressing outstanding issues like the DFC’s equity authority. The DFC should also have a higher tolerance for making faster, higher-risk, higher-reward investments in high-growth companies, enabling it to do more deals with more firms.

The U.S. also urgently needs a lead agency to direct substantial investments in innovation and coordinate a global innovation policy.

Finally, Congress should set a timeline to relax or eliminate directives that constrain U.S. global development agencies’ ability to spend resources more effectively; however, in the short term, the U.S. can likely adapt many programs in sectors like power and health to new funding models (i.e. compacts or investments) without breaking directives.

The U.S. has vast resources and can be the bridge toward transforming the future of global development. This requires bold and rapid transformation that centers community-led expertise and leadership so that countries around the world have what they need to sustainably thrive. The U.S. should stop funding global development like it is the country’s corporate social responsibility account. Instead, it should invest in a way that recognizes the powerful potential that its investments, if made differently, can have to transform the world for the better.

Click here to read legislative solutions developed as a result of these principles.

Our future will be built on the actions we take today.

This document is the work of many. Unlock Aid is grateful to those individuals who helped us organize, collaborate, inform and collect insights from our listening tour, especially Nasra Ismail, Founder of Generative Connections, who helped co-design this work from its earliest inception, as well as Masarat Daud, Jake Leffew, Shiro Wachira, Tania Roulston and Krish Dani, the organizations that hosted listening tour sessions with us in New York; Florida; California; Washington state; the District of Columbia; North Carolina; Kigali, Rwanda; Dakar, Senegal; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Nairobi, Kenya, and to the hundreds of individuals and organizations that participated, either in person or virtually.
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