Assessment of the Implementation of USAID’s Urban Policy

October 2013: Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World – USAID Policy
June 2019




USAID’s Office of Policy within the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL/P) recommends conducting Policy Implementation Assessments (PIAs) approximately five years after the publication of each policy or strategy in order to better understand how USAID policies have been internalized by the Agency to drive positive change. PIAs use rigorous research methods to help us understand how and to what extent the implementation of a policy has affected Agency programming and processes. PIAs have resulted in detailed reports that have been presented to relevant sector leadership and other USAID stakeholders and used for action planning to improve implementation in line with the findings and recommendations.


In October 2013, USAID released the Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World Policy. The “Urban Policy” was intended to guide USAID governance and service delivery programs working in urban and peri-urban communities. The stated vision is “to promote sustainable service delivery that brings large-scale benefits to urban residents.” This Policy was the first Agency-wide urban guidance since the 1998 Making Cities Work: USAID’s Urban Strategy. The Policy, developed with an extensive consultation process, builds on USAID’s 50-year history2 of urban programs and set out to guide USAID’s development efforts in the context of accelerating urbanization in low-income and lower- middle-income countries. The Urban Policy posits that urban programming improves governance, encourages accountability, and strengthens local capacity to generate revenue and improve and manage urban service delivery systems. The Policy identifies four development principles for urban programming: sustainability, pro-poor service delivery, public-private collaboration, and municipal resilience. Rather than applying a universal definition of “urban,” the Policy defers to national definitions of “urban,” but generally guides programs working in cities and towns on governance and service delivery for urban and peri-urban communities.

PPL commissioned the Learning and Knowledge Management mechanism (LEARN) to conduct this assessment to understand the extent to which USAID has implemented the Urban Policy as intended since its release in 2013. It assesses the progress, challenges, and lessons learned and recommends actions that the Agency can take to improve the effectiveness of the Urban Policy for the next five years.

The assessment examined four main research themes:

  1. Awareness of the Urban Policy and uptake of the Policy’s vision
  2. Integration into program cycle and strategic planning
  3. Urban programming and USAID capacity and resources for policy implementation
  4. Leadership and institutional support structures


Consistent with previous PIAs, this assessment used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to address the research questions. These methods included: i) semi-structured interviews with 72 USAID staff and implementing partners; ii) a review of documents from each stage of the Program Cycle (e.g., CDCSs/RDCSs, PADs, and Solicitations); and iii) a 49-question quantitative survey administered to USAID Washington and Mission-based staff, with 103 respondents. All research was conducted between November 2018 and March 2019.



Awareness and understanding of the Policy is low. While the Policy Task Team who drafted the Policy made extensive efforts to conduct outreach and dialogue to develop the Urban Policy, and then later to promote the Policy at the time of its release, those efforts were not sustained. Some connected the lack of awareness of the policy to their perception of low visibility of the issues of urbanization and urban service delivery throughout the Agency.

The lack of policy requirements and dedicated funding limits the Policy’s uptake. Because staff were not required to apply the Policy, were rarely advised to do so by Agency leaders, and no earmarks or other dedicated funding were available to implement the Policy, interviewees and survey respondents perceived that the Policy had been less visible than other policies. Some cited its lack of mandates and “operational relevance” as design flaws that limit the potential to build Policy awareness.

Measuring the success of the Policy and urban programming is difficult. Siloing of technical areas, a lack of documentation of urban programs, and limited awareness of the Policy’s vision have impeded measurement of success and understanding of USAID’s impacts and outcomes in activities to strengthen sustainable urban service delivery.

There is a perceived institutional bias for rural development. This perception was frequently cited by key informants as a major obstacle to socializing (as well as implementing) the Urban Policy and to USAID’s efforts to address urbanization and sustainable urban service delivery. Some concluded that the Agency is not adequately considering the evidence of the growth of urban and peri-urban populations and the risks and burdens that growth imposes on services and infrastructure or the economic opportunities it creates.

Interview and survey respondents had mixed opinions on USAID’s success in achieving the vision of the Urban Policy, but saw the vision as critical to partner countries’ development. More than a quarter of interviewees believe that USAID has not carried out the vision of the Urban Policy of “promoting sustainable service delivery that brings large-scale benefits to urban residents.” One Agency leader noted that achieving a vision “only happens when there is leadership at the Mission level interested in having a comprehensive urban approach and strategy.” In both interviews and survey responses, USAID staff expressed enthusiasm for the vision and objectives of the Policy and saw both the potential and the demand for USAID to address urban service delivery issues.


USAID rarely uses standardized urban assessment tools or urbanization strategies to help with strategic and project planning. The Urban Policy recommends these approaches to measure and strengthen the sustainability of service delivery and suggests that Missions in countries facing rapid urban growth should consider developing an urbanization strategy.

Coverage of urban issues in strategic planning documents is minimal to limited. Of all 61 active Country Development Cooperation Strategies and Regional Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCSs/RDCSs),3 61 percent had either minimal or limited discussion of urbanization and/or urban service delivery. Among the 13 USAID policies released around 2013, the Urban Policy was the least likely to be mentioned in current CDCSs.

Coverage of urban issues in Mission-based project planning is minimal to moderate. Of the 303 Project Appraisal Documents (PADs)4 in USAID’s Programnet database between February 2013 and November 2018, only 7 included the keyword “urban” in their titles or summary descriptions. Of nine PADs released after the Urban Policy that the assessment team reviewed in detail, the discussion of the importance of urbanization trends to achieving the project purpose was limited, and moderate attention was paid to urban trends, data, or local/sub-national government.

Urban-specific programming follows the tenets of the Urban Policy. An assessment of 20 solicitations with a high prevalence of urban-relevant key words revealed that all addressed key points in the Urban Policy: spatial distribution of the population (rural vs. urban); gaps in service delivery; urban population growth statistics; and/or local or sub-national government. The solicitations included moderate discussion of improving urban services as an approach to advance activity objectives.

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) in the urban context has improved, but urban data collection can still be strengthened. Respondents noted some improvement in urban M&E in the last five years: when asked about monitoring, reporting, and ability to assess the urban context, 16 percent of survey respondents reported an increase in the use of indicators to measure the sustainability of urban services, and 43 percent reported increased use of sub-national data to improve geographic selectivity of programs. Monitoring and evaluation remains an area of demand by key informants when they consider future implementation of the Urban Policy, and urban data may be relatively under-collected.


Urban programming is underway in every region where USAID is working. While the exact definition of urban programming can vary, and these programs are generally not the direct result of the policy, there is no question that many USAID programs take place in urban environments. Ninety percent of survey respondents reported that their Mission/Operating Unit has activities in urban areas (though this does not suggest the activities necessarily address urbanization or service delivery).

Over 80 percent of Mission survey respondents identified urban service delivery as an “extremely important” or “very important” challenge to their host country. Survey respondents also indicated that the strength of host country capacity, interest, and political will to buy into and build on urban service delivery activities can be an enabler or a constraint to urban programming and implementation.

USAID’s urban programs generally reflect the four principles in the Policy. Key informants reported that USAID programs reflect increased focus on strengthening market orientation, local-level democratic governance, transparency and accountability, and municipal resilience. Some interviewees suggested that these principles were grounded in good development practice, but were not confident that the Policy’s focus on these principles had led to their integration in the Program Cycle.

Cross-sectoral collaboration in urban programming may be increasing. Examples include the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s settlement approach to service delivery, the Global Climate Change office’s efforts to address cities’ physical infrastructure and services, and activities centered around the issue of governance, with sectoral programs attached. However, the need remains to overcome institutional barriers for urban implementation, such as coordination problems and rigidities of earmark requirements. Cross-sectoral programs typically involve corralling of funding from multiple streams representing various sectors, and cross-sectoral approaches in design, implementation, and evaluation remain atypical.

Perceptions of USAID’s capacity to implement urban programming are mixed. A plurality (39 percent) of survey respondents perceived USAID’s internal capacity/technical expertise as a constraint on implementing sustainable urban services programming, while over 28 percent saw it as an enabler. Some key informants noted low bandwidth and gaps in expertise for program design, and suggested that USAID is not strategically deploying its existing urban expertise, with the dispersion of these experts limiting a coherent approach to urban issues. Others perceived USAID’s capacity to be insufficient to support urban programming at a larger scale or to address rapid urban development using current methods and tools.

Demand for staff expertise and capacity building in both Washington and the Missions is high. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents rated internal capacity-building, training, and technical expertise as important or highly important to more deeply mainstream the urban policy and expand implementation of sustainable urban services over the next five years. Over 82 percent of staff surveyed were not aware of any online or in-person trainings in urban programming, despite some options being available in recent years.

Lack of funding resources, and particularly earmark restrictions on USAID spending, are seen as a substantial constraint to the implementation of the Urban Policy and of sustainable urban service delivery activities. Nearly half of survey respondents reported that availability of funding for urban services programs highly constrains USAID’s implementation of sustainable urban services activities. Respondents were more likely to identify funding as highly constraining implementation than any other factor. Over a third of interviewees volunteered that earmarks were a challenge and constraint to the Policy’s implementation. However, calculating the amount of funding that supports the Urban Policy and urban service delivery is difficult because of the classification and definition of funds.


Leadership and staff-level informants agree that urbanization and urban service delivery issues are under-appreciated, under-studied, and under-emphasized by the Agency’s leadership. Key informants said that the lack of leadership support affected allocation of resources, messaging, and incentives for staff to implement urban programs. Respondents often attributed this lack of focus on urban issues to the sheer number of priorities, approaches, and requirements USAID staff must address, coupled with the absence of requirements in the Policy. Seventy-six percent of respondents indicated that support from Agency leadership was of high or the highest importance to future mainstreaming of the Urban Policy.

USAID’s current institutional structures have not supported the fulfillment of the Urban Policy’s recommendations. In particular, institutional structures have not widely supported the expansion of internal capacity to improve service delivery or address the urbanization of poverty. The Making Cities Work contract has served as a useful mechanism for urban programming but has not been fully utilized, and the E3 Urban Team’s capacity and resources are highly constrained. Additionally, USAID has not established an official “Senior Policy Advisor on Urbanization and Development” to lead urban efforts as recommended in the Policy. Key informants noted that voluntary participation in the sporadic Urban Working Group or on other cross-sector initiatives was not an effective substitute for institutional support structures. According to the survey, approximately 10 percent of Missions and Bureaus have formally or informally appointed “Urban Points of Contact” or “Urban Advisors,” to provide technical support. Key informants reported that the Agency’s past urban institutional structures and funding streams more successfully and directly addressed urbanization and urban service delivery.


With millions of people moving to urban areas in USAID partner countries around the world each year, many USAID staff are thinking carefully about how USAID can assist in addressing the urban service delivery, infrastructure, and governance challenges they will face.  Over a third of interviewees raised the connections between urban issues and the Journey to Self-Reliance when asked about strategic priorities or trends within USAID that could affect how the Urban Policy will be implemented going forward. Many identified overlaps and opportunities for strengthening sustainable urban service delivery and carrying out the Policy’s principles in supporting the Journey to Self-Reliance.


USAID can and should play a more effective role in partnering for solutions to the complex challenges of urbanization and urban service delivery. The following recommendations suggest how USAID could update and build on the Urban Policy to address those issues and capitalize on cities as engines of growth and opportunity. USAID can take several steps to address some of the fundamental constraints to the implementation of the Urban Policy, even within the scope of existing resources and capacity.

1.    Raise Awareness of the Urban Policy and Urbanization Trends/Issues

  • Use evidence and data to elevate the Urban Policy and urban issues
  • Facilitate stronger Agency-wide data collection and understanding about urban programming
  • Elevate Agency-wide attention to urban issues and better articulate the alignment between Agency priorities and urban approaches

2.    Enhance Integration of the Urban Policy and Urban Issues in the Program Cycle and Strategic Planning

  • Provide tools and guidance to help Missions and Operating Units more effectively consider how addressing urbanization and sustainable urban services helps achieve development objectives in CDCSs, PADs, and solicitations
  • Prepare criteria to help Missions identify when an urban assessment would be most relevant
  • Improve access to urbanization and service delivery data to measure progress in advancing the Policy, capitalizing on metrics linked to the Journey to Self-Reliance

3.    Build USAID’s Capacity and Expertise on Urban Programming and Implementation

  • Pilot more holistic, place-based, and/or integrated governance approaches
  • Design training and tools that help staff assimilate USAID’s urban experience into their thinking, designs, and implementation
  • Create guides and evidence-based documentation to help Missions easily absorb urban information. Share tools, success stories, and trend analyses using Agency notices and websites like UrbanLinks, ClimateLinks, and LandLinks
  • Integrate urban considerations and approaches in curricula of existing trainings and orientations, and develop new urban trainings
  • Activate urban planning alumni networks in the United States and host countries

4.    Strengthen Leadership and Institutional Support Structures

  • Appoint a high-level Senior Advisor on Urbanization and Development
  • Expand the capacity of the Urban Team to provide technical assistance and training and build up the Urban Expert Working Group and other coordination mechanisms
  • Address misunderstood constraints on earmarked funding and identify areas of funding flexibility
  • Identify Urban Points of Contact in Missions/Operating Units where urban issues are most relevant

  1. The assessment was drafted by Rebecca Lawrence, with contributions from Lauren Baker, Nada Petrovic, Irena Sargsyan, and James Ladi Williams.
  2. USAID Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World Policy, p. 8
  3. A CDCS lays out the strategy that defines a Mission’s chosen approach in country and provides a focal point of the broader context for projects and activities. A RDCS is a strategy similar to a CDCS for a regional platform or program (ADS 201).
  4. A PAD documents the complete project design and serves as the reference document for project approval and subsequent implementation. A project consists of a set of complementary activities, over an established timeline and budget, intended to achieve a discrete development result, often aligned with an Intermediate Result (IR) in the CDCS Results Framework (ADS 201).