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USAID’s New Urban Policy: A Response to Christopher Vincent

Guest Post By: Steven Feldstein  (Director of the Office of Policy, Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, U.S. Agency for International Development)

December 6, 2013

In the weeks since USAID released its policy on Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World, we have received a variety of responses, support for its vision, and suggestions for moving forward. Christopher Vincent’s recent post on the IHC blog praises the Agency for directing renewed attention to this important development trend, but is skeptical of the potential impact of the policy absent additional resource allocations or monitoring requirements.

Vincent equates funding with impact: “Without incentives like funding and clear metrics, USAID missions will perceive this document as an academic exercise and continue business as usual.” He is correct that the policy does not direct additional resources toward urban activities. USAID resource allocations are constrained by a number of factors, including congressional mandates.

But it is incorrect to assume that USAID staff only respond to policies that mandate programmatic adjustments. USAID policies and strategies serve a variety of purposes. This policy serves as a foundational statement on how to improve our development efforts in urban areas. Many missions are already conducting urban programs. Others are eager to address urban issues, but lack tools to design effective programs. We are developing clear guidance for implementing the policy that responds to demand from USAID missions, and helps leverage existing resources to enhance outcomes in urban areas.

This policy marks a critical step to raise the profile of urban development issues within USAID. This kind of shift will not happen overnight, nor will it occur in all USAID missions at once. But we are confident that the impact of this policy will be real.

Vincent is also concerned with the policy’s treatment of housing and land tenure issues. It is true that the policy does not include a large dedicated section on these issues, although housing and land tenure are specifically woven throughout the document. Partially, this is because we spend resources on housing primarily in the context of emergencies and disasters.1 But more significantly, we made a deliberate choice for the policy to focus on addressing the underlying causes of poverty, which impact the quality of housing, security of tenure, and other deprivations. Rather than provide programming guidance for individual sectors, we chose to embed the challenges of addressing urban poverty within our core development objectives—including education, economic growth, democracy, human rights, and governance. Ultimately, we believe this will enable our partners to address the institutional and social drivers in cities that lead to inadequate housing and insecure tenure.

This was USAID’s first policy to benefit from extensive public comment before it was released. We see continued policy dialogue of this sort as necessary and valuable for helping the Agency to achieve transformative impact and for ensuring that USAID policy and staff remains at the cutting-edge of development approaches and practice.


[1] In Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) provided more than $25 million in humanitarian shelter assistance and shelter-related risk reduction activities. USAID’s Development Credit Authority (DCA) also provides partial credit guarantees to increase lending and private investment in a variety of sectors; since its inception 11 years ago, DCA has supported 12 guarantee programs for the housing sector in 10 countries, leveraging $84.8M in private capital.

One Comment on “USAID’s New Urban Policy: A Response to Christopher Vincent”

  • Ryan December 6th, 2013 4:17 pm

    I think that both of these reviews miss the critical point of the policy, which is to develop high-impact USAID projects by drawing programmatic attention to urban areas. The discussion so far has hit on two possible deterrents to urban programming within the Agency:

    First, the lack of funding specifically targeted to urban areas vis-a-vis an Urban Planning sector or category within the budget. Developing this kind of institutional direction would certainly bring about changes, but the pervasiveness of urban issues do not match the hierarchical organization of budget categories and sectors. Shifting the budget to accommodate such a field might entail a full over-haul of the budget organization. The current format of the budget (like many of the projects funded under it) is silo’d when it should be holistic. What if the budget was built to mirror the project cycle of innovation, monitoring and evaluation, and scaling up? This way the budget would indicate the overarching goals the agency.

    Second, Feldstein claims that some missions want to work in urban areas, but “lack tools to design effective programs.” There seems to be a more obvious course of action than relying on a 30-some page document to develop the technical expertise needed to design urban projects - hire more experts. The policy is a great indication that the Agency understands what urban planners have been talking about for the last 20 years, but it is not a tool for designing a project in a specific location.

    These two broadly-categorized courses of action - restructuring the budget and hiring experts in urban issues - could develop the kind of impact intended by the policy.

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