Global development is going local — what will that look like a decade from now?
The message from Ethiopia this week is that the answer will hinge on a new vision of partnership, guided by clear strategy and increasingly allied with a poverty-conscious private sector.
“The ground beneath our feet is shifting,” Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar told attendees at the opening plenary of the Devex Partnerships Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Tuesday.
The growth of developing economies, emergence of new actors into the development space and dispersed power of technological innovations have converged to redefine the practice of global development in ways that organizations, businesses and governments are now trying to anticipate and understand.
As the landscape has shifted, so has the business of development. It no longer boils down to a simple relationship between clients and contractors, but now operates within a complex ecosystem that spans sectors and intertwines with global and regional markets.
The Devex Partnerships & Career Forum in Addis Ababa convened delegates from local and international organizations, donor agencies and government ministries representing more than 3 nationalities to explore those trends and forge relationships that can bridge local expertise and priorities with the global networks, experience and resources to support and sustain them.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom defended his government’s vision of a big, active government, with ownership of the nation’s development goals — what he called a “developmental state.”
“As Africans, some of the blame we get is, when a partner comes to us and says, ‘jump,’ we say ‘how high,” Adhanom said. “By having your own vision and goals and strategies, you will detach from that and say, ‘why.’”
A case study in aid localization
Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid — the single largest recipient of aid from the U.K. Department of International Development — yet remains one of the poorest countries on the planet.
At the same time, the country points to an annual GDP growth averaging 10.7 percent and has made substantial progress on the Millenium Development Goals, particularly those related to health. Foreign investors are lining up to set up operations — and tap growing markets — in the East African nation, and the country’s government has declared its ambition to reach middle-income status by 2025.
The key to achieving success against a backdrop of persistent poverty, according to the Ethiopian minister, has been aid agreements that put donor funding at the service of national plans and interventions, not vice-versa.
Adhanom cited his government’s preference to receive unearmarked “basket funding” from donor agencies that “accept our plan,” and who all agree to provide funds in support of the same development strategy.
“Genuine partnership should really center … on the priorities of the country, and for partners to help in any way possible to make that happen,” he said.
That emphasis on selective, purposeful partnership should not stop at the national level, but should extend to local organizations when they think about what value they can derive from partnership with an international NGO, Nicole Barnes, vice president for business strategy and communications at RTI International, said during the plenary panel discussion in Addis Ababa.
As donors ask international aid implementers to work more closely with organizations on the ground, those local NGOs can pursue partnerships with an eye towards greater selectivity and higher value.
Barnes explained local organizations should ask: “Who are the international organizations that you’re working with? What kind of support are they giving you?”
“Get to know lots of organizations and see who’s a good cultural fit for the work that you do,” she advised delegates of local organization in attendance.
The trend toward “aid localization” has to be put into context.
“Most of this work has always been done by front-line workers,” noted Haddis Tadesse, interim Africa director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Let’s not pretend that those of us from outside have come and figured out and solved these problems,” he added.
Local development expertise has often accumulated within international NGOs and donors who hire in-country staff to implement their programs. In many cases, that dynamic is accelerating.
“Across our offices, more and more of our staff are Ethiopian,” said Julius Court, acting country director for DfID Ethiopia. “We’re shrinking our international staff and growing our local staff.”
For those local recruits, employment with international agencies is not always the end of the road. Development talent and leadership is increasingly migrating from international to local partner organizations.
“We’re losing staff to partners, and that’s a good thing,” Court pointed out.
Those local organizations are in turn taking greater ownership of the development process, from program design, to management, to evaluation — and aid donors have begun to push more funding toward them. In some cases, local groups are assuming the role of prime contractor on international development bids, with international organizations subcontracting under them to provide technical support.
All of these changes are underscored by an even greater sea change, which has seen private sector resources vastly outstrip official donor assistance funding to developing countries. So at the same time aid is “going local,” funders are also looking for opportunities to influence markets, and press corporations to make poverty reduction and high environmental standards key attributes of their global brands.
“When you look ten years from now you’re going to see a much different way of doing development,” Barnes said, citing the emergence of what she called a post-CSR world where pro-poor investments and environmental conservation constitute core business practices, not fringe marketing strategies.
But what that means, she said, is not yet clear to everyone.
Stay tuned as we roll out news and videos from the Devex Partnerships and Career Forum in Addis Ababa over the next few days. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to stay abreast of the latest from Ethiopia and elsewhere.
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