For more sustainable development, commit to locally led solutions

A local savings and loans group enables a village in Dowa, Malawi, to have access to credit and a culture of savings. Photo by: USAID / Feed the Children / Amos Gumulira / CC BY-NC-ND

Local, developing country institutions should be the first and default option for delivering U.S. aid where appropriate capacity and conditions exist.

Helping to build up this local capacity and ensuring that developing country governments and citizens are setting their own priorities should be top priorities for the U.S. When the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network laid out its ambitious policy agenda, “The Way Forward,” last spring, we called for the U.S. to significantly expand its commitment to country ownership.

But what does committing to “country ownership” mean? And how should it be supported so that it contributes to sustainable development?  MFAN believes effective country ownership support requires a commitment to:

a. Ownership of priorities: ensuring a broad set of local stakeholders shape the development agenda.

b. Ownership of implementation: promoting and enhancing the capacity of local organizations to implement programs and projects.

c. Ownership of resources: promoting and enhancing local/country capacity to co-finance their own development priorities.

It is hard to argue with the logic of these principles, and the strong evidence base that highlights how these are linked to program sustainability. But the current U.S. foreign aid system, with congressional earmarks and presidential directives that silo our aid dollars before beneficiaries have a chance to weigh in with their needs and priorities, is not always conducive to fostering local ownership.

Changing that system is no small task. As we have found in our own organization, institutionalizing local ownership requires a significant change in business practices and a radical shift in mindset.

For example, Plan International has built capacity on the ground in more than 50 countries.  

Independent ex-post evaluations of our work (see examples of recent evaluations done in Kenya and the Philippines) suggest that reciprocal partnerships between Plan, local and national governments, and the communities have helped to increase local ownership and sustainability.

On the other hand, our own research has also shown us that even in countries where Plan has developed very strong local NGO capacity, the local partners all too often continue to view Plan as a donor, and our programs and projects as “PVO projects.” The projects are something from outside they are paid to do rather than an expression of local priorities.

As Alan Fowler has written, “Northern NGOs simply find it difficult to forego power.” While Plan’s approach to development recognizes the vital roles of governments and citizens, we have too often seen local nongovernmental organizations as service delivery mechanisms.

Plan is taking the results of its studies and developing more concrete programmatic indicators that measure the effectiveness of our partnerships with local NGOs. At the most basic level, Plan is working to yield our power to local actors. Our partnership guidelines lay out the five stages of the transition.

Initially, Plan supports local/national NGOs to implement projects. At the second stage, Plan and NGOs implement projects that include shared decision-making and accountability plus capacity building. Next, local NGO priorities become part of Plan’s long-term partnership strategy. In the fourth phase, program design is led by national NGOs with Plan’s support and national NGOs are systematically consulted in Plan’s policies and strategies. In the final phase, Plan country offices in places like Colombia and India have been spun off to become independent members of local civil society in their own right.

This is a lengthy process that requires a long-term commitment to the principles and practices of local ownership and sustainability.

Plan’s large base of individual funding provides long-term financing, giving us the luxury of designing and executing projects with longer time frames. But all too often development projects try to squeeze into two, three, or four-year activities and transitions. As noted in a recent Oxfam paper, “Institutional change takes time. When donors’ success is measured in inputs and short-term outputs, policies may fail to reward a sustained effort for institutional change.”

As part of MFAN, we are encouraged by the commitments the U.S. government has made to elevate the importance of local ownership at the Millenium Challenge Corp., U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and U.S. Agency for International Development.

For example, USAID’s Local Solutions initiative, started under former Administrator Raj Shah, seeks to program more funds through local institutions and applies a risk-management approach in order to safely increase the amount of U.S. government resources flowing directly to developing country partners, free of corruption or mismanagement. We hope to see acting Administrator Lenhardt and the forthcoming nominee continue the implementation of Local Solutions.

MCC continues to prioritize country-led solutions as a key pillar of their approach to development. The MCC’s country compact development process demonstrates a commitment to designing compacts based on a partner country-led process of determining priorities. PEPFAR’s Sustainability Action Agenda, as part of the recently launched PEPFAR 3.0, recognizes that many countries are in a position to assume greater responsibility of financing, management and implementation of programs, and we need to focus on building up the systems and policies necessary to maintain control of interventions.

To endure, all of these initiatives will require continued leadership, assessments of agency practices and evidence of the effectiveness of these approaches for improving both development outcomes and lasting impact. To gather this vital evidence, metrics for ownership and sustainability are essential.

Devex, in partnership with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, is exploring the progress and potential of making U.S. foreign assistance more effective. To explore additional content, visit the Reform for Results website and tweet #Reform4Results.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tessie San Martin

    Tessie San Martin is a co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and president and CEO of Plan International USA.