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USAID Vows Inclusion in Fight Against Extreme Poverty

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 2014 (IPS) - The United States’ main foreign aid funder, USAID, released a mission statement Wednesday that includes new focus on ending extreme poverty while also promising to be more inclusive in incorporating civil society and other input in its decision-making.

“We partner to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity,” the agency’s new mission statement now reads, putting a greater emphasis on the link between extreme poverty and strong and democratic states.

“Any process in which USAID opens its door to different perspectives is an important step and is one that should be applauded." -- Akshaya Kumar

A USAID spokesperson told IPS that the new mission statement “is about how we do what we do and it’s the core of who we are and what we have always done over [the past] 50 years.”

Civil society actors reacted to the new vision with cautious optimism.

“[USAID’s] stated commitment to engage with civil society and others in order to shape their thinking is very important,” Nora O’Connell, associate director of public policy and advocacy at Save the Children, an advocacy group here, told IPS.

Yet she also noted that it will be important for Western donors, while including different stakeholders, to also include local actors in the development effort.

“No donor or outside actor can go in and develop people. The country has to do it itself, and that is why governments in those states should also play a leadership role,” O’Connell said. “These can be from civil society or the private sector,” she said, as long as they are fully included in the development and reconstruction process.

The release of the new statement comes a day after top USAID officials and civil society leaders made a public commitment to fight extreme poverty in conflict zones as part of the post-2015 global development agenda, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Alex Thier, USAID’s assistant to the administrator, told a panel discussion here on Tuesday that the agency will undergo a major process of inclusion over the next year. This will see USAID increasingly welcoming input from civil society, think tanks and affected stakeholders in its efforts to implement the post-2015 global development agenda.

“We are truly on the precipice of a great moment: One year ago, President Obama called on us to stand together to achieve what I believe may be one of the most extraordinary goals that the United States or frankly any country has ever set out for itself, which is to eradicate extreme poverty from the planet,” Thier said.

“We at USAID are … rising to answer this call [and] as we focus on ending extreme poverty, we have to seek better ways to engage in fragile states where conflict, corruption and recurrent crises impede inclusive growth.”

USAID says it will need to “scale existing partnerships and develop new ones to draw in fresh perspectives and innovative thinking”. This expansion is part of a new effort that Thier said is “meant to provoke thought” by bringing in new perspectives and views.

The new perspectives are likely to come from universities, research institutes and non-governmental organisations, Thier said.

“We’re not just stating policy,” he noted.

Security focus

USAID’s efforts are part of broader global momentum to make the fight against extreme poverty in conflict zones a top priority. Last year, the Washington-based World Bank unveiled a new institutional vision that will likewise focus on ending extreme poverty.

In 2011, a grouping of conflict-affected countries known as the g7+ unveiled a new initiative, called the New Deal Compact, aimed at providing developing states with more of a say in the fight against poverty. With countries such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Haiti, Liberia, Somalia and others as members, the New Deal Compact aims to ensure that development aid focuses on peace and security ahead of other goals.

Also, in 2012, a United Nations report emphasised that eradicating extreme poverty would be a “crucial” aspect of any new post-MDG strategy, especially in conflict-affected areas.

According to USAID statistics, there are currently 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty, 70 percent of whom live in fragile states. USAID’s Thier says that by 2020 extreme poverty will be increasingly concentrated in fragile or failed states.

Some activists say that such an approach should constitute an important part of USAID’s new approach in countries experiencing conflict.

“Any process in which USAID opens its door to different perspectives is an important step and is one that should be applauded,” Akshaya Kumar, the Sudan and South Sudan analyst at Enough Project, an advocacy group here, told IPS. “But it’s also important to first diagnose the inter-linkages between different conflicts across different regions.”

Very often, Kumar said, conflicts are driven by economic factors – for instance, mining or trade. Once such linkages are detected, addressing root causes of conflict can become easier.

“If you look at the Horn of Africa, for instance, you can see that [warring factions] try to take advantage of goldmines in northern Darfur, or oil routes in South Sudan, undermining the ability of the local population to benefit from economic opportunities,” she said. “They then use that money to fuel war.”

Real efforts aimed at conflict resolution are perhaps the best strategy to begin thinking about how to fight poverty in conflict areas, she said, and the new political commitment by the U.S. government and USAID are positive signs.

“The next step is to show that these commitments will be put in practice. One important factor will be whether U.S. government bodies such as the State Department will actually facilitate these negotiations.”

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