For context: I'm an Army Officer and I spent most of my time in Civil Affairs, the international relations arm of the military. I'm doing a series of lessons learned and how they can apply broadly to EA. The views expressed in this article are my own.
Prepare to go the into the weeds as I ty to explain how one small part of the US Government does their foreign aid/development work. This is narrowly focused on Humanitarian Aid, and how we do it, as Civil Affairs, in country and note that this is only one of many ways to do international aid/development.
As a primer, here is a fact sheet on OHASIS: https://www.agc.army.mil/Media/Fact-Sheets/Fact-Sheet-Article-View/Article/480925/ohasis/
And here is a much more in depth OHDACA funding piece: https://samm.dsca.mil/chapter/chapter-12
For the purposes of this I need to explain that there is a Combatant Commander and an Ambassador in country (or Charge d'Affairs) and sometimes their goals are in conflict. If there is an active war in place, then the Commander usually sets the theatre objectives and so forth. If we are in a county with no war, then the Ambassador (or Charge d'Affairs) sets the major objectives and their objectives may or may not line up with what the military is trying to accomplish. This primer is narrowly focused on one program, and one Command. Other Commands may run their OHASIS projects differently.
I've got a project proposal!
So, you're a bright eyed and bushy tailed young idealist in the military. Great! Oh, and you have been out interacting with the local population, getting a feel for how the USG might be able to work with the locals to achieve their goals? Wonderful.
From start to finish, a couple of things need to happen in order for us to fund a project. One, we have to figure out what the project is, and then we need to do all of our little back end things.
Let me give you an example of how this works. OHASIS has two levels of projects. Those that are under $2k USD and those that are over that limit. There are other limitations, but let's go into both of these.
Let's assume that you have done the work already and you know what project you want to do. Great!
Projects under $2k
I have it on good authority, that projects under $2k can be approved within two weeks if the stars align. What the heck is the USG paying $2k for exactly? Well to give an example, hotel and transportation costs to do an assessment.
Since the USG is already paying to have a Team in the region in question, when we want to run a mission, we need to pay for it. The combatant commander has already said, I want a team in X country. The ambassador has signed off on your team operating in the area, and the federal or local government welcomes the aid.
So let's say that the ambassador wants the team to do a SWEAT assessment (sewage, water, electricity, academics, trash, medical, safety and other, a SWEAT-MSO ) of a hospital.
[Side note: when you start a project with OHASIS funding rather than operational funding, you need to do a follow up and you can't cross align funding. Meaning, you do one mission with OHASIS, all follow on missions for that purpose must be OHASIS funded. And there is a follow up requirement.]
Your team has the capability to go in an do that assessment to see if there is anything that the USG can do to help. So, you make a project and send it up the chain to the four star command for approval. If the project is approved, you pick the agreed upon dates and go, perform the mission and set the times for a follow on if applicable.
This sounds like an easy process, but I've seen a lot of these stall out right here. Again this is an example.
Projects Over $2k
Every year at least in AFRICOM, they host a RSWG (Regional Synchronization Working Group more info here: https://www.africom.mil/Story/28511/africom-leaders-discuss-future-during-symposium ) where they set their priorities of what missions they want to execute. This is very important because it is only held once annually. As well be mindful, in Africa, we have the tyranny of distance. The hardest part is often getting to the place.
As part of the RSWG and/or STARWG (Strategy-to-Activities Working Group ) the top brass picks and chooses, ranking their top choices or projects and funding some, or all of them. The STARWG is held more often at least.
Participants pick their projects and pitch them here. I advocated for sending a rep from my Battalion when it was our turn.
Now, keep in mind that AFRICOM personnel stay on board for 3 years, however the teams on ground? The military teams switch out every 9-12 months. The state department usually has people in place from 2-3 years as well.
This means that the project you propose probably won't be the project that you yourself do.
In fact, your replacement might not even do the project. This happens. It's expected. There is a lot of turnover in Country, but the higher echelons do not turn over nearly as often. Personally- I advocate for longer deployments, if you're going to do them, finish the job and have a good handoff to your replacements, and actually do some measurable good.
There are three warehouses that support OHASIS around the world that may or may not be able to supply materiel (read: supplies) requests. These may include bed nets, but also could include office furniture and a whole host of things.
Items from this can be shipped or moved as a part of a OHASIS project. The cost to move the thing is the main consideration.
The funding falls into the rules as before.
Keep in mind that this is one of a few different funding sources and is not utilized as much as it should be
In addition to OHASIS there are other types of funding that we use. The main route is Operational Funding. This the the Combatant Commander dedicating a part of their budget towards a certain mission and has many fiscal and regulatory requirements, also goes to a working group and legal review, etc.
This is usually the main way that missions get funded. We ask the Commander if he wants to do the thing and he says, yes or no. Again, this is often planned out months in advance in conjunction with the State Department or Host Nation.
Often the follow up or continuation is left to ones replacement. This makes continuity hard.
I can summarize the biggest issue in one quotation (which may be apocryphal).
"Every time the Chinese come, we get a new hospital. Every time you come we get a lecture."
(This is from a conversation between an African and a British official, but you can catch my meaning.)
Bottom Line: It's highly inefficient, probably for a reason
The clunky interface of OHASIS itself, combined with a need to justify having an account to get into the system, much less use it for any reason is probably by design. Would I design it this way? No.
Would I design a non governmental organizations process to be this way? No.
Do the checks and balances work? Yes.
Unfortunately, it also has the end result of making mission approval harder and more scrutinized. So in the end, it's a way to execute altruism, American style. (With lots of Bureaucracy.)
I just wish that it was a bit more efficient.