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A Frontline Snapshot of USAID History

by Eric Chetwynd, Jr.

In the 1970s, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) developed its first overall policies on urban development. Prior to this effort, USAID had not undertaken a wholistic approach to the essential problems that a rapidly urbanizing country might encounter, and how this trend could have implications for the international goals of the United States. Over an intensive twelve-year period USAID created the first Office of Urban Development, forerunner of today’s USAID’s urban programs around the world.

Stemming primarily from the end of the colonial era in the 1950s and 60s a new and dramatic demographic change was taking place in most developing countries. People were migrating from rural to urban areas at a prodigious rate and with improved health, nutrition and post war security, natural population growth in these countries was exploding as never before. U.S. and other urban scholars and some donor agencies were beginning to worry that cities would be overwhelmed by these unprecedented population flows. They feared that high unemployment, underemployment and the inability to provide adequate services for basic human needs (housing, sanitation, health and education) would result in unrest and chaos and undermine the development process. These concerns were playing out at the height of the cold war when unrest and instability in any of these fragile nations was seen as a possible threat that could lead to further geo political advances of Soviet influence and Communism. Accordingly, this concern about the ability of cities to cope with burgeoning population growth was driven not only by concerns for development, but also national security and survival of western values and institutions.

In the summer of 1970, Dr Joel Bernstein, then Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Technical Assistance, convinced the USAID Administrator, John Hannah, that the Agency should investigate the impact of rapid urbanization on USAID’s goals and objectives. The charge was to determine whether the Agency should have an overall policy and specific programs for dealing with this urbanizing phenomenon. Dr. William R. Miner and I were asked to lead this investigation and Miner was made director of the nascent Urban Development Staff which was given a broad mandate to complete this mission for the Agency.

As urban development was relatively new territory for USAID, we decided that the net should be cast widely in terms of input but should begin with a thorough examination of the Agency’s own programs. In a word, historically, many of the Agency’s capital projects were impacting the urbanization process but there was almost no supporting urban technical assistance programming to guide these activities. To the extent this was happening, it was focused mostly in Latin America in housing and urban sector loans. Those struggling with these and other urban-based programs supported the mandate and expressed a need for Agency policy guidance.

After an extended period of studying USAID’s existing programs we circulated a paper of our findings for discussion and simultaneously sponsored a series of workshops across the country, pulling in top urban experts from academia and the professions. These workshops and our interactions with other donors, led us to identify some key areas that that would become our initial focus.

We took these issues to the developing countries and USAID field missions for vetting and there asked three basic questions. What are the major urban problems you face; what resources are available locally for dealing with them; and what, if anything, would be an appropriate role for USAID? We obtained an enormous amount of very specific information and the overall results were shared with the Agency’s technical leadership and management in the form of a policy paper and the first overall Agency Urban Development Policy Determination was born. Modest in scope, it mandated that we continue to develop our understanding of the interplay between urbanization and development, undertake some exploratory R&D activities, help sensitize our developing country partners about the issues, and improve information and available skills.

Shortly thereafter (in 1973), Congress entered the dialogue with its “New Directions Legislation,” which rejected the traditional top down capital assistance dominated approach and demanded that USAID focus on the “poorest of the poor,” which the Agency interpreted basically as the rural poor. This brought about some adjustments in Agency urban policy directions to include the role of urban centers in rural and regional development and eventually, at the insistence of powerful big city Congressmen, inclusion of a focus on the urban poor.

The office that emerged from this process and which was charged with leading the way for the Agency, was the Office of Urban Development. With very modest resources, it pioneered an impressive array of still relevant field based programs that included:

  • Secondary City Land Use Programming, Growth and Development
  • Urban Functions in Rural and Regional Development
  • Micro-and Small-Scale Enterprise Development
  • Integrated Programming for the Urban Poor
  • Urban Financial Management
  • Energy and Resource Efficiency in Urban Development.

This last program, titled Managing Energy and Resource Efficient Cities (MEREC), creatively married urban sectors with their capacity for energy and resource conservation. Conceived in the waning days of the 1970’s global energy crisis, this project involved not only most of the functional sectors of a city but also captured the Agency’s urban development learning curve. Carried out initially in the Philippines and then in Thailand and Portugal, this project was ahead of its time and pre-dated Agency concern with climate change and urban resiliency. It underscored the Agency’s growing realization that the best of development was derived from maximum application of local skills, creativity and institutions.

By the time this pilot program had proven itself a major success, the energy crisis had abated and the urgency that fueled the program was past; the Office of Urban Development was dismantled in a 1982 USAID (and government) downsizing. MEREC never became a global program at the time. But now, in a new century, many of these original Agency urban programs have been rediscovered and are being looked at once again as worthy of deployment. Among these that synch with and could be re-purposed successfully to address today’s problems MEREC surely is at the top of the list.bluestar

Note: This article is based on a book, Pioneering in International Urban Development: Creating USAID Policies and Programs 1970-1982, (published in May 2018, ISBN: 978-0-692-04978-5), available through The complete papers on which the book is based are accessible in a USAID Development Experience Clearing House (DEC) Special Collection at under the search term “UrbanDevelopmentOfficeHistory.” The book is also available as a free download at that same site as document number PB-AAE-707.


Author Dr. Eric Chetwynd‘s USAID Career (1962-1992 ) included resident field assignments in Indonesia and Korea, 12 years as Deputy Director of the Office of Urban Development and concluded with an assignment as Director of the Office of Economic and Institutional Development. After leaving USAID, Dr. Chetwynd served as Counselor of Duke University’s Center for International Development Research at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. From 1993-1996 he was Director of The Research Triangle Institute’s (RTI’s) Municipal Finance and Management Project, a USAID program focusing on Russia, Ukraine, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. As an independent consultant, Dr. Chetwynd worked on program and strategy design, local government, evaluation and facilitation activities. He has dedicated this article to his book co-author, the late Dr. William R. Miner.


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