How to make foreign aid work better and deliver local ownership

A project in Malawi engages local community stakeholders to address some of the challenges in girls' education in the country. Speaking to local groups is one way to deliver value for money on the ground and ensure local ownership. Photo by: Erik Törner / IM Individuell Människohjälp / CC BY-NC-SA

One of the world’s poorest countries, Malawi suffers each year from floods. But the recent flooding that inundated large swathes of the country is unprecedented; the rains came earlier and the floodwaters took longer to recede.

International aid agencies are providing emergency relief to affected population, but even they are now finding themselves overwhelmed. While they have prepared for annual flooding and have prepositioned supplies, they did not anticipate that they would have to respond in areas that normally remain unaffected.

The floods didn’t just demonstrate the effects of climate change on one of the world’s most vulnerable countries, but they also brought to light the need to develop aid programs that take local contexts into account.

To find out how to make foreign aid work better in Malawi, we spoke to Maxi Ussar, a gender expert working in the country. Ussar explained that one of the obstacles stopping nongovernmental organizations from making progress was their dependence on donor-driven initiatives, which risk leading to fragmented development interventions. Frequently changing government priorities, she said, can also exacerbate the situation.

“To some extent, some donors’ priorities are still set in capital cities and program and project guidelines can be very specific and not based on in-depth understanding of the local context,” she said. “They may want to fund a specific issue in a specific region, which determines what actions the not-for-profits carry out, even though they feel this is not the most effective way of engaging with the local community or could even be counterproductive to achieving the donor’s own goals.”

In Ussar's experience, many organizations feel torn between what their donors want, what the Malawi government wants, and what headquarters’ policies prescribe.

“These are pulling in three different directions, so the program will not be very coherent or effective,” she explained.

Funding is another problem. Ussar noted how funds are often rigidly programmed before they even reach the country. That may be for a good reason, but the expert said much more flexibility is needed in a country as diverse as Malawi, as “what works in drier and more barren regions that has issues with malaria, won’t work in a lush and bountiful region where the issue is access to market.”

Against the 'cookie cutter' approach to aid

In times of dwindling official aid budgets, Ussar noted how donors like the European Union issue very specific calls for proposals guidelines to ensure value for money in their projects.

5 ways to deliver value for money on the ground and ensure local ownership:

1. Start each project with an inception phase to properly ascertain community needs.
2. Speak to as many local groups as possible, and in their own language.
3. Accept the constraints under which donors are operating.
4. Don’t falsely raise expectations.
5. Accept that gender mainstreaming will not always be transformative, so complement gender mainstreaming with targeted strategies for women’s empowerment.

These detail exactly how money is to be spent, even down to the specific percentages to be spent on each activity, using what has been described as a “cookie cutter” approach that fails to take into account specific local needs and demands. Ussar said this raises the question of how bilateral donors can achieve a balance between not stifling creativity and making sure money is well spent.

“I always want to ensure that any project I am involved in provides what the community wants as well, making a fundamental difference to them and their children,” she said. “However, the challenge is that if you follow a genuinely participatory in-depth grass-roots assessment and consultation at the outset of any potential funding opportunity, you have to make sure you don’t raise people’s expectations in case you either don’t secure the funding, or come back with a project that isn’t entirely in line with what they need, but is in line with the donor’s priorities.”

One solution, Ussar noted, could be for donors to fund a six-month inception phase to develop a specific program based on the community’s needs, which more and more donors such as the U.K. Department for International Development and IrishAid are now adopting.

“First of all you have to map out what has already been done, as too often we duplicate past projects. Then you must hold meetings to engage the entire community,” she explained. “It’s not enough to develop a project based on one meeting with the village chief, you have to arrange meetings with all different groups in the village, so you get different viewpoints.”

Managing expectations in gender mainstreaming

In the area of gender, Ussar described how past projects were full of good intentions, but incorrectly focused.

In one project aimed at training women, facilitators discovered that participants would only attend if they were back in the village by 3 p.m., otherwise they were uncomfortable about attending for fear of being seen as prostitutes.

Another scheme aimed at funding women to develop cash crops and livestock so they could set up small businesses. However, local knowledge showed that in that region, men were responsible for the cash crops, while women would manage the food crops and chickens to feed their families, so weren’t expected to leave the village to sell at local markets or to take livestock to the vet.

While she accepts that this may be reinforcing gender roles, Ussar is realistic about what can be achieved.

“We need to understand the limits within which women operate so they can participate,” she said. “While we need to make sure that gender is always mainstreamed so women are included, we have to accept that some projects will not be transformative in helping to empower women.”

Ussar is adamant, though, that one must recognize the limits of such an approach to gender mainstreaming so that nontransformative work is complemented by targeted interventions that break harmful gender stereotypes and challenge existing unequal power relations in communities.

“We must ensure that gender mainstreaming moves from ‘damage control’ to genuine transformation,” she concluded.

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About the author

  • Daphne davies profile

    Daphne Davies

    Daphne Davies is a London-based freelance journalist and consultant with more than 30 years' experience in international development. She has worked with the U.N., the European Union, national governments and global civil society organizations, including Amnesty, WWF and LDC Watch. Her expertise is in monitoring government policies in relation to international cooperation. Her interests are in sustainability, social and economic matters, women and least developed countries.