Devolving U.S.A.I.D. Training to State Colleges and Universities

Matthew R. Auer, Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs,
Indiana University

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For fiscal year 2013, President Obama’s budget request for the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) amounts to $51.6 billion (Voice of America, 2012). More than 80 percent of that sum will be dedicated to foreign aid. An important tool in foreign aid programs and projects is short-term and long-term targeted training of citizens from foreign countries – also known as “Participant Training.” USAID claims that “hundreds of thousands” of “Host Country Residents” and “Nationals” take part in USAID-sponsored Participant Training programs worldwide, though it does not provide precise data revealing how many trainees receive training within the United States (USAID, 2012a). USAID and other sources declare that thousands of USAIDsponsored visitors are trained at American colleges and universities, each year (USAID Office of the Inspector General, 2004b; Fox, 2000: 21; USAID Office of the Inspector General, 1995). USAID has professed the value of Participant Training, particularly short-course, certificate-based or degree-based academic training at U.S. universities (USAID, 2012a; Fox, 2000). A World Bank report exploring USAID’s experience with Participant Training observes:

Most USAID professionals regard these programs as one of the most successful areas of USAID activity, an assessment generally based on the observation that earlier participants have moved into key positions in government (Fox, 2000: 21).

That same report declares, however, that there is uncertainty about Participant Training’s verifiable “effectiveness.” For example, USAID has been unable to establish whether and to what extent jobs obtained by trained beneficiaries, are, in fact, a result of Participant Training. Also, USAID does not present clear criteria for who is trained, and hence, cannot demonstrate that it trains the “right people” (Fox, 2000).

Apart from being unable to affirm that Participant Training outcomes are meaningful, lasting, and that they reach the right beneficiaries, USAID has recurring problems processing participants’ records and in tracking their whereabouts, particularly after training is completed.

For example, an audit by the Office of the Inspector General found that USAID did not have a reliable system for verifying that participants trained in the US from Egypt actually returned to Egypt at the end of the training period (USAID Office of the Inspector General, 2004a: 12). Of 21 participants who were classified as “non-returnees” to Egypt, unpaid fees for training amounted to more than $240,000 – fees that were supposed to be paid directly by participants through training agreements (USAID Office of the Inspector General, 2004a: 11). Similar problems were reported in other country programs, including Nigeria (USAID Office of the Inspector General, 2004b).

The urgency of some of these problems, and the challenge for USAID to address them, is captured by the Inspector General’s conclusion that:

As a practical matter, it is impossible to handle U.S.-based or third-country Participant Training effectively without an experienced U.S.-based or third-country entity to administer day-to-day oversight and monitoring requirements, and in the case of U.S.-based activities, to adhere to the Department of Homeland Security regulations (USAID, 2012b: 5).

This author proposes an effective and efficient alternative to the current administrative arrangement for USAID Participant Training. The conventional wisdom suggests that matters of foreign policy, including foreign aid, are the provenance of the federal government and that state governments and their partners are ill suited to perform these functions. However, USAID Participant Training could be administered more competently by state government departments of higher education and public colleges and universities, compared to the current contractor-awarded arrangement, considering that:

  • state higher education departments know the organizational and professional landscapes of colleges and universities more intimately than do private sector contractors;
  • public higher education entities have vast experience recruiting, placing, and monitoring international students, particularly post-9/11; and
  • colleges and universities, staffed by experts in program evaluation, are much better-suited to evaluate Participant Training outcomes than is the federal government or its current array of Participant Training matchmakers.

At the broadest level, state government departments of higher education and state colleges and universities are better suited than are federal contractors to match participants with higher education trainers. Furthermore, devolution of Participant Training functions to state and local levels could increase state government and civil society actors’ ownership in the development and execution of foreign aid responsibilities, thereby increasing public awareness of the purposes of foreign aid, and helping combat negative perceptions of foreign aid.


Virtually every state college and university in the United States maintains an office and/or dedicated staff with expertise in handling international student admissions, ranging from students seeking conventional undergraduate and graduate degrees to non-credit and executive education students. Indeed, state institutions of higher learning are increasingly incentivized to grow international student admissions because these students tend to pay tuition and fees at non-resident rates, helping replace shortfalls in state funding.

State colleges and universities tend to have robust systems in place for processing international student records and are well-versed with new visa rules and regulations that Congress and the Department of Homeland Security created in the wake of 9/11. Colleges eager to attract international students are experts in the processing of J-1 visas and in meeting the requirements of the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Universities are linked to on-line portals that require student applicants to take ownership in the application process and to present credentials, including proof of financial capacity (e.g., local bank accounts and account balances; tax ID), prior to admissions. These are regularized functions that are easily dispatched by universities, in contrast to USAID Missions or USAID contractors who are not higher education specialists. In recent years, USAID Missions have been criticized in how they, or their contractors, handle student visa and SEVIS data, including problems in processing of records (see, e.g., USAID, 2003: 8, 9, and 12).

State governmental departments of higher education are suitable intermediaries to facilitate USAID Participant Training at state colleges and universities, and are better suited to that role than are D.C.-based USAID offices, USAID Missions or aid contractors. First and foremost, state departments of higher education know, intimately, organizational architectures, institutional capacities, and academic and pre-professional assets of each state college and university in their jurisdiction. This contrasts sharply with USAID contractors who have comparatively little knowledge of the organizational and programmatic strengths and weaknesses of U.S. colleges and universities and who, in the experience of this author, “cold call” administrators and professors at universities to seek matches between overseas participants and prospective training sites. This approach is, at best, information-poor and prone to sub-optimal pairings of participants and training institutions.

Moreover, whereas international students at state colleges and universities typically must produce evidence (e.g., proof of savings) and/or make security deposits for tuition prior to traveling to the U.S. and even prior to admission, these provisions typically are not in place for USAID Participant Training programs which explains the unpaid fees by participants (particularly “no show” participants or participants who fail to return to their home countries).

State departments of higher education have campus liaison responsibilities. In the proposal here, those responsibilities would include channeling USAID requests for Participant Training to state colleges and universities. In fact, the state liaisons would have little or no responsibility for handling participant transactions and records (e.g., visa processing, participation fees, etc.). These duties would be handled by state colleges and universities who already administer these functions for international students.


In 2011, USAID issued a project award worth up to $242 million to the private sector contractor World Learning for the purpose of administering a five-year Participant Training program called FORECAST II (World Learning, 2012). This is a significant outlay of U.S. taxpayer resources for the purpose of Participant Training, and neither USAID nor World Learning divulges what portion of those resources is absorbed in administrative fees. Considering that World Learning and other contractors ultimately retain the services of colleges and universities to perform Participant Training, a key administrative issue is how to move those resources to higher education trainers in the most accountable and efficient manner.

USAID should establish a competitive process whereby states apply to administer Participant Training funds. Federal agencies are already well versed in competitive bidding by states for federal resources in areas such as education (e.g., Race to the Top) and community service (e.g., Social Innovation Fund). Likely start-up costs for a federal-state competitive bidding process and for the administration of the Participant Training program, itself, would include:

  • The development of eligibility rules, application procedures, and application review and selection criteria for states;
  • Identification of appropriate units in state higher education departments to assume Participant Training administrative functions. These functions are appropriate for state higher education officials who perform facilitating and enabling (rather than regulatory) roles.
  • Development of administrative functions, including training of state higher education officials (from states that win bids), to handle applications from USAID Missions and central USAID offices for requests for Participant Training; and
  • Higher workload for state colleges and universities that receive trainees for Participant Training. However, in practice, state colleges and universities would incur minimal start-up costs since these bodies already regularly perform comparable international student admissions, placement, and record-keeping functions. Moreover, it is already the case that state colleges and universities are administering Participant Training functions (through current, contractbased placement arrangements). Hence, start-up costs for experienced state colleges and universities would be effectively nil.

USAID, and in particular USAID’s Economic Growth and Trade (EGAT) office which is the “contract manager” for the current system of placing trainees, would cease to administer competitive bids for federal contractors. Instead, USAID would issue competitive awards to states; the principal unit in the agency responsible for issuing awards to states would be USAID’s Office of Procurement which is USAID’s self-described “business” office, and unlike EGAT, has principal responsibility for executing contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements. Considering its primary procurement role, it is better suited to administer competitive awards to states than is EGAT, though the latter could perform a facilitating role in determining competitive awardees.

State awardees will administer the awards through their own higher education agencies who, as argued above, have more intimate knowledge of the organizational and professional capacities of state colleges and universities that typically execute Participant Training. Costs for the program proposed here are not “new and additional.” Indeed, there is potential for cost-savings and the promise of stronger accountability in the proposed system vs. the current arrangement. Currently neither USAID nor its contractors disclose overhead costs in administering Participant Training programs. In contrast, state government sunshine laws oblige state agencies to account for every dollar spent.

Positive Outcomes

Expected positive outcomes are considerable. They include:

  • Greater financial accountability. In state cost accounting systems, administrative costs (e.g., indirect costs, staff salaries, insurance, etc.) are generally differentiated from substantive program costs, such as costs of delivered goods and services (e.g., commodities, equipment, fees paid to higher education trainers). This stands in stark contrast to USAID public accounting documents on Participant Training (see, e.g., USAID Congressional Budget Justification at USAID, 2012c; see also USAID Agency Financial Report at USAID, 2012d) that do not itemize these costs. Accounting disclosures by private contractors involved in Participant Training are even less revealing.
  • Knowledgeable intermediaries. State departments of higher education deal directly with colleges and universities on admission policies, applications for new degree programs, credit transfer, higher education financing, and institutional audits. These state agencies are far more knowledgeable about their institutional partners than are federal contractors to USAID.
  • More transparency. State departments and commissions of higher education abide by strict conflict of interest rules that allow them to separate college/university funding decisions from regulatory functions (e.g., audits of state-sponsored student financial aid). Rules to separate Pioneer Institute: 21st Better Government Competition 2299 awarding of Participant Training from state regulatory decisions could be easily developed and enforced, e.g., state departments of higher education could constitute panels of academicians from representative colleges and universities to recommend Participant Training awards.
  • A better job of program evaluation. To date, USAID and its contractors have been unwilling or unable to adequately account for outcomes of Participant Training. In contrast, virtually all state colleges and universities have faculty and/or professional staff trained in program evaluation and institutional effectiveness; these experts can serve as third party auditors of program outcomes.
  • Enrolling ordinary Americans in foreign aid delivery. Foreign aid is a perennially unpopular program, according to public opinion polls (see, e.g., Miller and Epatko, 2011; PIPA, 2001). This stems, in part, from public ignorance of the scope and scale of foreign aid and the scarcity of opportunities for public involvement in foreign aid institutions. A system that privileges state colleges and universities in Participant Training is less “elitist” than one open to private universities and think tanks. It is fitting for students in state educational institutions to have proximity to trainees from overseas – perhaps becoming directly involved in training itself by serving as student hosts and ambassadors or as assistants to trainers.


USAID has considerable flexibility to award funds to its contractors and cooperators, and in practice, it is not precluded from involving state government or other public sector actors (e.g., federal government partners, per the Federal Acquisition Regulations System) from administering federal funds. However, were Participant Training to be exclusively administered by states, this would require a “Justification and Approval Document for other than Full and Open Competition,” under General Services Administration procurement rules (See GSA, 2012). Depending on the size of the potential awards to states, this arrangement would invite Congressional scrutiny, particularly by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

Applicability to Massachusetts

The State of Massachusetts is typical of U.S. states in terms of its prospective capacity to administer the program described here. First, its Department of Higher Education is suitably organized to administer Participant Training liaison functions considering it has both an admissions and transfer office, an office dedicated to campus relations, and an internal evaluation and reporting function (see Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, 2012). Taking on board Participant Training administration responsibilities would likely require additional staff hires in Massachusetts’ Department of Higher Education, particularly support staff that handle requests or task orders from USAID Missions and central offices. Importantly, these transactions would mostly entail identifying appropriate state college or university candidates for Participant Training. Administrative duties would not involve handling of participant eligibility information, participant records, and participant costs – tasks reserved for the colleges and universities that already administer these functions, every day, for international students and international trainees.

Consider, for example, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s well-specified and regularized processes for handling pre-admission, eligibility, fee, visa, and travel functions for international students and visitors (University of Massachusetts, 2012; see also University of Massachusetts Boston’s international student application and admissions procedures at University of Massachusetts Boston, 2012).

Public institutions of higher education in Massachusetts have already participated directly in USAID Participant Training activities. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was a key destination for individuals trained in the recent Malawi Participant Training Program (USAID, 2009). Hence, key actors in Massachusetts already understand the aims and objectives of Participant Training and are familiar with U.S. Department of State, USAID, and Department of Homeland Security documentation rules and regulations governing Participant Training.

Like many state higher education systems, it is also the case that Massachusetts state colleges and universities are contending with shrinking state financial support (see, e.g., Jan, 2010). An important political benefit to the system proposed here is that state government, which is often the bearer of bad financial news for state colleges and universities, can offset funding shortfalls by facilitating the awarding of federal funds for Participant Training.

Future Goals/Conclusion

The author recognizes the value of foreign aid, including its role in promoting U.S. national security and in maintaining America’s reputation as a strong and compassionate nation ready to help people in need in developing countries, around the world. The potential value of Participant Training is also apparent, considering the author has trained students from overseas – students who have returned to their home countries with new professional skills and knowledge and who feel gratitude towards Americans and America, generally.

A key global trend is the demand for specialized training by visitors to the U.S; these visitors often aspire to obtain that training in state colleges and universities. State government agencies for higher education have a role to play in matching trainees with trainers. The system described here entails a comparatively low administrative burden on state government, considering that state colleges and universities – not state agencies – would discharge the detailed administrative work (compliance with participant eligibility rules, handling of participant applications, records, fees, etc.,). Public colleges and universities already routinely discharge the kinds of Participant Training administrative functions that high-overhead federal government contractors struggle to master. Transferring a well designed, efficient and transparent Participant Training placement and auditing system into the hands of state colleges and universities, aided by state departments of higher education, is clearly in the public interest.

Contact the Author:
Matthew R. Auer Dean
Hutton College Professor
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Indiana University
811 East 7th St
Bloomington, IN 47405
Phone: 812-855-3550
Fax: 812-855-5416

Fox, James. 2000. Applying the Comprehensive Development Framework to USAID Experiences. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. nsf/DocUNIDViewForJavaSearch/184D637C15695AF38525697C004E2559/$file/ OEDWP15.pdf.

GSA. 2012. Subpart 6.3: Other than Full and Open Competition. Available at:

Jan, Tracy. 2010. Higher Education Chief Decries Cuts in Funding, Boston Globe, 9 September.

Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. 2012. About Us. Available at:

Miller, Talea and Epatko, Larisa. 2011. Foreign Aid Facing Proposed Cuts and a Public Perception Problem. Available at: facing-proposed-cuts-public-perception-problem.html.

PIPA. 2001. Americans on Foreign Aid and World Hunger: A Study of U.S. Public Attitudes. Available at: ForeignAid_Feb01_rpt.pdf.

University of Massachusetts Amherst. 2012. Graduate School. Available at: http://www.

University of Massachusetts Boston. 2012. Prospective Students: International Student & Scholar Services Offices (ISSS). Available at: prospective_students/.

USAID. 2012a. Education, Universities and Training: Participant Training: A Brief Overview, 2012. Available at: htm.

USAID. 2012b. ADS Chapter 253: Participant Training for Capacity Development. Available at:

USAID. 2012c. Congressional Budget Justification. Available at: performance/cbj/index.html.

USAID. 2012d. Agency Financial Report. Available at: afr/index.html.

USAID. 2009. Malawi Participation Training Program Outcomes Study. Available at:

USAID. 2003. Memorandum: Report on Audit of USAID/Bulgaria’s Participant Training Activities (Report No. B-183-04-001-P). Available at: fy04rpts/b-183-04-001-p.pdf.

USAID Office of the Inspector General. 2004a. Audit of USAID/Egypt’s Participant Training Activities. Audit Report No. 6-263-04-004-P. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Inspector General.

USAID Office of the Inspector General. 2004b. Audit of USAID’s Participant Training Activities. Audit Report No. 9-000-04-005-P. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Inspector General.

USAID Office of the Inspector General. 1995. Audit of Cost-Containment in USAID’s Participant Training Program. Audit Report No. 9-000-95-012. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Inspector General.

Voice of America. 2012 USAID Chief Defends Foreign Aid Budget for 2013. Available at: for-2013/.

World Learning. 2012. World Learning Welcomes FORECAST II Award. Available at:

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