Existential angst is a common job hazard in our field of work. Few of us from donor countries join the fight against poverty for the pay or the lifestyle. For most of us, the reward is the work.
And yet we agonize over the truth that too many aid projects — whether they delivered on their objectives and deadlines or not — did little to change the big picture. People are still suffering, governments remain unresponsive and local nonprofits struggle to meet communities’ needs. And we’re left asking: “Did anything we did here actually make lasting difference?”
That’s because the tools provided by some of our employers — and, by extension, the funding provided by the donor — weren’t really designed to deliver real change. Instead, they were designed to deliver narrow, specific, measurable results: number of training materials produced, demonstration sites established, field visits conducted. All this “stuff” can’t — and won’t — translate into lasting impact unless multiple local stakeholders adopt the activities as their own. But we don’t often get the built-in flexibility to adapt to feedback and ever-shifting environments.
From the Washington perspective, this kind of top-down management puts Congress at ease. It reduces the risk that some nefarious person will abscond with taxpayers’ funds. But in reality, imposing top-down controls to reduce financial risk creates new risks — that citizens, officials, leaders and entrepreneurs in poor countries would find it hard to use U.S. assistance to lead development in their countries.
See more on aid going local
The U.S. Agency for International Development is trying to fix this. Last month, the agency released its new “local systems framework,” which intends to enable a more flexible approach. It laid out 10 principles, including “recognize that there is always a system operating” and “engage local systems everywhere.”
There is recognition that fiduciary risk is only one kind of risk. Focusing too much on fiduciary risk can leave efforts susceptible to other risks, such as changing contexts or poor program design and, most importantly, lack of ownership among local leaders and questionable impact.
This recognition might seem obvious; in fact, it’s revolutionary. It means that the U.S. government is finally embracing what experienced development practitioners across the globe have known for a long time: All development is local, and efforts to appease Washington often come at the cost of lasting impact.
A large number of nongovernmental organizations in the United States are embracing this new USAID approach.
The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a coalition that includes multiple USAID implementing partners, stressed that “local institutions in developing countries … should be the ﬁrst and default option for delivering aid where appropriate capacity and conditions exist.”
But some in Washington are resisting. A few development consulting firms have hired lobbyists in an effort to restrict USAID’s ability to introduce these changes. Their arguments are familiar; they are primarily concerned with financial risk. In one of the few public statements on the issue, the Council of International Development Companies asked: “What other measures will USAID institute to ensure that U.S. laws, regulations and standards for the use, management and oversight of U.S. tax dollars will at least be equal to those applied to all U.S. implementers working internationally?”
Safeguarding donor funds is a fundamental responsibility that all of us in this field take seriously. But the American citizens who provide our funds, either through taxes or donations, don’t just expect us to collect receipts; they also expect us to deliver results. By defining “risk” so narrowly — as only the risk of diversion of taxpayer funds — these few resistant firms are defending a shrinking business model. Americans and citizens of partner countries are demanding real progress in the fight against poverty. They are becoming more discerning shoppers, learning to look skeptically on projects and implementers that deliver promised outputs but fall short on promised impact.
By arguing against a more thoughtful understanding of risk, these few resistant firms make it harder to mobilize political support for U.S. development efforts. They are telling the public that it’s just too hard to work with local, citizens, leaders and communities to design better programs that deliver lasting results.
The good news is that the holdouts are a shrinking club. More and more people in Washington are acknowledging that USAID’s more modern approach to risk is needed. With greater flexibility in the field and a stronger role for local actors, development professionals could find that USAID’s local solutions framework leads to a greater sense of accomplishment and progress, both for expats and locals.
Will this new local systems framework help create lasting impact for U.S. aid? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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