It occurred to me that I might have a great way to inject some vitality and vigor into USAID. Granted, this is somewhat of a flippant post and doesn’t address all the serious policy issues that USAID has to deal with. But I figure with all the problems USAID is having, what with most Americans not even knowing what USAID is (!), what harm would this idea do?
So USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, is in charge of aid programs to emerging and undeveloped countries. Its staff has been greatly reduced in the last two decades or so, and Dubya managed to behead USAID of its key management in the same way that Reagan did to the EPA. The USAID has such a poor image problem that SecDef Gates and SecState Clinton seem to be the ones defending the agency these days, saying that more funding and hiring energy should go into USAID.
USAID needs a lot more people. But it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of money, especially right now. USAID also needs a brand makeover. It has almost no awareness in the US, and has a sketchy reputation abroad. International development as a whole is taking some knocks.
So here’s what we do. Send in the young entrepreneurs. Tons of them. Screen kids in high school and college for problem-solving curiosity and initiative. Even throw camps to bring those qualities out of them. Then send them to DC or to development areas worldwide. Peace Corps on the cheap but with entrepreneurs instead of “do-gooders”.
Most of the kids wouldn’t be safe abroad, so leave them to work on projects in the US. But here’s the rub. Let them figure out what the problems are, and let them use their problem-solving skills to organize the projects. That is, social entrepreneurs do best when they know their environment well and see all the problems within that society and then seek ways to fix them. What they need is a structure around them to encourage them to solve those problems. USAID’s goal would be to use its excellent senior managers and junior workers (apparently USAID’s main liability is its mid-career vacuum) to supervise those social entrepreneurs.
So what you get is a self-organizing insurgent initiative within USAID that is encouraging the next generation of international development/engineering social entrepreneurs to get some field experience and some hands-on time. With very little cost and a lot of upside, not requiring large investments in career capital.
The underlying principle is that there is a whole generation of people out there ready to do something fun, cool, interesting, and helpful, but they really have no way to do it. Let these problem-solvers do what they do best, and encourage it from an early age.
USAID can market itself this way: sucking up young future leaders into its orbit and taking on a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit. The boring current USAID logo says much about its decaying position within the US budget and policy priority list. At this point it needs to take on some insurgent qualities and juggle up its DNA.
USAID’s role as an agency for development not only could take on more life abroad, but also at home, at a time when the economy is getting crushed and innovation is stagnating relative to past generations’ perceptions.
So how’s about it, USAID? Let’s see some fire in your belly. Let our people do what they do best.