Truman National Security Project

Wanted: Donors Committed To Transforming The Security Paradigm

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Earlier this week, Jennifer Lentfer of the Guardian proposed a new idea: give aid workers a micro-investment fund over which they have total personal discretion, suggesting that “if people are forced to think micro, a more inclusive discourse on aid may actually be built.”

Over a decade of work at the Department of State, I spent about $1 billion of US taxpayer money – but it’s the small projects that I recall as having the greatest impact. In a time of economic and fiscal uncertainty, “doing more with less” is an appealing mantra to government officials and taxpayers alike.  Yet lest you think I’m arguing for a smaller budget, let me set the record straight: strategic investments in foreign aid are essential to national security. My mantra isn’t “do more with less,” but simply, “do better.”

When it comes to accountability, the reason small budgets are more effective is a bit counterintuitive. Ultimately, it’s because the program officer isn’t the one held accountable for a billion dollar program – that responsibility is pushed upwards. When the objectives are so enormous that managing for results becomes a paper exercise, “progress” is defined by the number of police officers trained or the complexity of one’s PowerPoint presentation, and “accountability” by the number of times Congress drags a senior official to Capitol Hill to demand answers. But few ask, and even fewer monitor and evaluate, this: is my program actually enhancing the security of everyday people?

In 2005, I was leading efforts to rebuild and reform the Afghanistan National Police for the Department of State. Through my implementing partner, a contractor, I had hundreds of police advisors on the ground – seasoned American cops tasked to train and advise the Afghans. On an assessment trip to the field, I asked a group of them for their creative recommendations to improve the program. While I couldn’t promise it would be funded, I’d consider every viable idea put forth.

This is how the Afghan Family Response Units (FRUs) were born. American advisors collaborated with Canadian and United Nations police advisors to create a pilot domestic violence unit in Kabul, later renamed the Family Response Unit. The initial project, underway for several months, enjoyed a generally positive reception and supportive local media coverage. Perhaps we could fund an expansion, the advisors suggested.

The entire project could be supported for around $1 million – a far cry from the $1,000 suggested in the Guardian piece. But it was a fraction of a percentage of my overall budget. From a 10,000 foot level, it was peanuts.

The creation of the FRUs had a tangible, positive impact on the lives of Afghan families, and it paved the way for creation of an Afghan Women’s Police Corp. More importantly, it changed the conversation and opened the door for a broader dialogue about women’s role in the Afghan security sector – a conversation that continues today.

The point isn’t the size of the project, but the process. Small budgets force you to collaborate and innovate, because you have to stretch your dollar as far as possible to maximize your impact. Are there local products you can buy instead of importing more expensive U.S. items? What if you hire local implementers instead of a contractor? Perhaps they’ll have a better sense of what works in-country, and you’ll be able to reinvest in the local economy at the same time.

I don’t miss the big budgets I had at the State Department. I’m in my element coordinating a new initiative for my organization called Resolution to Act (R2A), an initiative built on the principles of collaboration, innovation, and accountability. R2A convenes state and non-state actors to identify more effective ways to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which addresses the pivotal role women (should) play in conflict resolution and sustainable peace.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d love more money for this initiative. But freedom to innovate and find new ways to collaborate with other organizations that seek the same objectives is infinitely more inspiring. I’m also 100% accountable for the success or failure of the initiative – which means I wake up every day and ask myself whether there’s something I could do better than I did yesterday.

Ultimately, the genius of microgranting isn’t the amount of the proposed discretionary fund, but in the principles such an approach would force us to adopt. Which begs the question: why not simply require collaboration, innovation, and accountability in each and every foreign assistance program?

Angelic Young is a Truman Security Fellow.