Country ownership, power and development

    Children in Udayapur District, Nepal, participate in an educational WASH program. Citing a proposed foreign aid policy in Nepal that gives the Nepali government increased power, Peter Cross offers his ideas on why this is inconsistent to the real definition of "country ownership." Jim Holmes for AusAID / CC BY

    The concept of “country ownership” is of recent origin and there is little agreement on a definition.

    It rose out the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the 2008 Accra Agenda, and is defined by Population Action International as “an institutionalized process that allows for the participation, as equal partners, of governments, non-state actors — such as civil society and the private sector — and parliamentarians in the development, implementation and monitoring of national development plans.”

    The definition, however, converts country ownership from a strategy into a long-term goal. In what developing country do non-state actors have an equal partnership with government?

    That’s why I was struck by a recent Devex article about how Nepal’s proposed foreign aid policy would “consolidate official development assistance through a unified government channel as well as impose a minimum amount from donors.” This policy will clearly give the Nepali government increased power, particularly relative to the non-state sector, and is, therefore inconsistent with the definition of country ownership cited above.

    Country ownership must not be allowed to become “government ownership.” Past foreign aid efforts that have worked almost exclusively with governments have already generated several perverse consequences:

    1. Governments enormous resources (power), which frequently leads to corruption.

    2. They tend to be accountable to donors, but less responsive toward their citizens.

    3. Certain sectors, particularly health and education, are monopolized by the government, and even basic economics teaches us that monopolies are inherently inefficient, producing too little of too low quality at too high a cost — although there are certain “natural monopolies” like national defense, justice or market regulation.

    Country ownership needs to be earned, not granted to governments.

    To achieve country ownership, less aid — and thus less power — should be given to governments and much more aid should be provided to the non-state sector. There was a time when there were fewer qualified national experts in most countries receiving foreign aid. By the 1980s, however, many, if not most foreign aid-funded health projects across the world were primarily staffed by national experts, although still managed by international organizations. The missed opportunity has been the direct hiring of national experts, rather than through the creation and sub-contracting of local organizations.

    There is increasing interest now in using local organizations, but they will take time to grow and reach the level of expertise of international aid groups, and in most countries many officials will seek to preserve their governments’ power, relative to the non-state sector. How does country ownership apply in this very common situation? I’m a development professional who has not read widely, but I have not seen this issue discussed enough. In Nepal, however, it is clear that the government just wants more power at the expense of the non-state sector.

    • Donors, however, should pursue the strengthening of the non-state sector as a strategic priority.  It will have the following benefits:

    • Local institutions created and/or strengthened will seek to survive the transition at the end of a specific project.

    • They will seek opportunities and funding to further pursue the objectives of the original project, because they have the required skills.

    • They will advocate for those objectives within their governments, attempting to hold them accountable for further progress.

    • When donor funding is provided, they will retain the “indirect costs” and “fees” — if any — associated with the payroll and other direct costs, which they incur.

    • As they become stronger, they will assume larger roles and eventually become prime contractors with likely increases in cost-effectiveness.

    Citizens, acting individually, cannot hold governments accountable. But foreign aid should eventually be able to create a strong, vibrant non-state sector with institutions increasingly capable of holding governments accountable, and the time for country ownership will have arrived.

    In the meantime, however, policies like the one currently being considered by the Nepali government should be strongly resisted.

    One wonders how many individual people support the policy and how many, if they knew about it, would oppose it. Given the huge number of private Nepali aid workers, the nays would seem to be in the vast majority. How then is country ownership being served?

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    About the author

    • Peter Cross

      Peter Cross is president of IDEAS, a U.S.-based social enterprise which seeks to strengthen the provision of health services to underserved populations around the world. A health economist with over 40 years of experience developing health and education in the world’s poorest nations, his most recent work was in Afghanistan and also spent six years in Nepal. Cross is a member of USAID's Supply Chain Sustainability Technical Advisory Group.