For aid professionals, it's self-interest vs. country ownership

A Hellenic Red Cross worker takes the details of people who have received relief items at a first reception center near Moria on the island of Lesbos. Photo by: Stephen Ryan / IFRC / CC BY-NC-ND

Patrick Fine, CEO of FHI 360 — a $600 million dollar organization and one of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s top 40 vendors — recently wrote a piece for Devex titled “Why we shouldn’t be working ourselves out of a job.”

He refers to the view “that if we just do a good job, then prosperous, well-governed communities will quickly take root and eliminate the need for further assistance.” And he goes on to say that “ending poverty is not simply a matter of following the blueprint or reducing institutions and socio cultural norms to a set of discrete tasks, that once completed, will stand like a stone wall against the tides of change.”

Mr. Fine is of course right that there is no blueprint for development and implies that we cannot impose one.

He adds: “Moreover, in a world where the pace of change requires constant adaptation and lifelong learning, the whole notion of sustainable development as an anchor concept in the development lexicon becomes an oxymoron. Quite literally, in a world of constant change, our work is never done.”

And he is right that development doesn’t have an end point — a time when one says it’s all done. He even says our own development in advanced countries is problematic: “We need to dispense with the fiction that ‘developed’ countries have the answers and our task is simply to export them.”

But there is something fundamentally wrong with the picture Mr. Fine paints, and a closer look at his piece reveals a clue — the use of the telltale “we” and “our” as in “if we just do a good job,“ and “our work is never done.”

With this language, Mr. Fine inadvertently gets at the central dilemma of development today: whose job is it?

Development agencies and their clients since the Paris Declarations of 2005 have officially backed the concept of country ownership — the notion that developing countries must take responsibility for their development, not just for its conception, but its implementation. If it ever was up to “us,” as in those from the “global north,” to do the work, it certainly no longer is. Today development is not “our work.” We can help, but the time for “us” in the global north as the engine of development is coming to an end.

FHI 360 is just one of scores of organizations (both for-profit and nonprofit) that count on contracts and grants from bilateral and multilateral donors to implement development work in many countries around the world. It is a lucrative business, and new work keeps coming. USAID, for one, continues to release large grants and contracts. Take just two recent examples: The Youth Power Implementation Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract, USAID’s first dedicated cross-sectoral youth development project, involves six prime contractors  — FHI 360, DAI, Creative Associates, Global Communities, RTI International and Banyan Global — and over 70 subcontractors, the majority of which are U.S.-based. The work will run into 2020. A recent Water and Development IDIQ, meanwhile, which involves seven prime contractors — all global north firms — will also run to 2020 and cost $1 billion.

It’s hard to reconcile Mr. Fine’s belief that “we” cannot export development with his equally strong belief that “our” work is never done. What indeed do “we” — the hundreds of northern firms that get to charge fairly large overhead costs that reduce the value of each dollar that gets to the developing countries — have to offer?  Technical skill? Knowledge? Cultural sensitivity? Today northern firms in development talk about “partnerships,” “knowledge sharing,” and so forth. But this is often a thin rhetorical veneer overlaid on what is basically self-interest. Those who have spent time in the field know how these partnerships look and feel. In my opinion, they are first and foremost unequal — the donors and their agents (northern firms such as those who will implement the Youth Power IDIQ) control the money, and so they have the power. Their partners know this and act accordingly, because some of that money will trickle down to them and they need it.

Last year, I finished a 30-month project  — funded by USAID through FHI 360 and MSI — that took me and my team to nine countries in which we interviewed over 300 local organizations about the future of aid. We found tremendous capacity among local organizations and local people. We met countless smart, savvy, tough-minded people who are ready to lead development in their own countries. When we pushed on the question of what, then, do the northern “partners” bring to the table, the most common answer we got was access to money and clout. When we pushed further and asked if they brought skills that local organizations and people did not have, the candid answer of the majority was no.

Beneath the surface, however, we detected an ambivalence about the whole set up. Those in the global north have been leading development projects for so long that habits have set in that make it hard to let go. Both sides, the global north and the global south, are used to the way the game is played. Everyone knows the routines, the jargon, and the unwritten rules. And while our research showed real capacity and a confidence that “they” can do the job with very little help from “us,” we found an ambivalence about letting go of old patterns. We called this syndrome “co-dependency.” It lies at the heart of the dilemma of country ownership.

The best thing “we” as the global north can do to promote country ownership is to reduce co-dependency, and by so doing bring back local self-confidence and the strong emergence of local capacity. But for us to do that, we need to back off, control less, and indeed do less. Naturally that will mean less money for us. But that is what working ourselves out of job means. And that, sadly, is why Mr. Fine and most of the rest of us don’t want to do it.

In the aid industry working ourselves out of a job is simply not in our best interests. It’s too lucrative to stay in business.

Devex Professional Membership means access to the latest buzz, innovations, and lifestyle tips for development, health, sustainability and humanitarian professionals like you.  

Our mission is to do more good for more people. If you think the right information can make a difference, we invite you to join us by making a small investment in Professional Membership.

About the author

  • Thomas Dichter

    Thomas Dichter's career in international development spans 50 years. He has worked in over 60 developing countries on four continents, as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Peace Corps country director in Yemen, vice president of TechnoServe, program officer of the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, a researcher on development issues for a think tank, and a staff member of a for-profit USAID contractor. Since 1994 he has been an independent consultant, including for UNDP, IFAD, USAID and the Asian Development Bank.