Old wine in new bottles

USAID Asia Bureau Deputy Assistant Administrator Greg Beck (left) holds a dialogue with local government officials and community leaders in Bohol, Philippines. What makes for effective country ownership? Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

This is the fifth of seven parts in the Devex series “Foreign aid effectiveness: A radical rethink,” written by Diana Ohlbaum — a former deputy director of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives and senior professional staff member of the two congressional panels overseeing U.S. foreign affairs.

Ask a member of the U.S. Congress what is meant by “country ownership,” and if you get anything other than a blank stare, it is likely to be something along the lines of “an entitlement for corrupt foreign governments.” The idea that development works better if the people with a direct stake in the outcome play a leading role in selecting priorities, designing strategies, managing programs and evaluating results is one that hasn’t quite penetrated the Capital Beltway.

Read more articles on the Foreign aid effectiveness: A radical rethink series:

● The illusion of control
Betting on the poor
● The siren song of technical assistance
● Knowing our limits
● Country ownership 3.0
 The path forward

Yet country ownership is a concept that politicians, administration officials and aid practitioners will need to embrace if they are serious about ending aid dependency and helping countries “graduate” from assistance. Exerting tight control over aid resources may seem like the responsible way to conduct oversight in the short term, but as we continue to pile on restrictions and requirements that are designed to feed U.S. political processes rather than to build local capacity and self-reliance, we are defeating the entire point of the aid enterprise.

At some point, we’re going to have to learn to tolerate certain risks if we want to end up with a world of capable, responsible partners who are accountable to their own people.

Risk, as the U.S. Agency for International Development acknowledges in its local systems framework, comes from a variety of sources with wide-ranging implications. In addition to fiduciary risk — the possibility of waste, fraud and misuse of funds — there are also the risks of failing to adapt to changing context (such as war or natural disaster), of poorly executed and ineffective programs, and of lost credibility or trust due to unintended outcomes.

Our rigid, centrally directed and input-oriented system has focused on preventing fiduciary risk while barely even registering the other risks.

The best way to advance country ownership is to equip citizens to make reasonable demands of their governments, to empower governments to deliver on their promises and to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make sound decisions.

—  Diana Ohlbaum, former deputy director of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives

To be clear, “country ownership” does not mean handing over bundles of cash to foreign governments and hoping for the best. It does not mean that aid recipients will not be held accountable for achieving results or that expenditures will not be monitored. In fact, it still encompasses the basic partnership relationship that David Bell laid out in 1966:

The aid donor recognizes that the recipient, as an independent country, must and will make its own decisions on budget and fiscal policy, foreign exchange, educational priorities and other national policies affecting development. And the aid recipient recognizes that the donor, as an independent country, must and will decide whether aid requested for a given project or purpose will in fact be likely to achieve the results desired, given the policies that the receiving country proposes to follow. We in the United States consider that it is entirely up to an aid recipient what development policies it wishes to adopt. But it is equally up to us, as an aid donor, to decide whether the circumstances presented in a country will permit external assistance to yield significant results.

It is also important to remember that country ownership is not synonymous with “government ownership,” much as some governments might wish it to be. True country ownership requires that the national development agenda reflect and incorporate the expressed desires of the population and that civil society participate in setting priorities, monitoring projects and measuring results.

To be effective, a development strategy must be carried out in cooperation and collaboration with local businesses and community-based organizations rather than treating them as passive recipients and observers. However, we must take care not to set a higher standard of representative democracy on young and fragile states than we achieve for ourselves. Does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. government budget is an accurate reflection of the wishes of the majority of the U.S. population?

Diana Ohlbaum on USAID’s transformation

What’s new and inherently risky about country ownership, then, is not a reduction in oversight but a transfer of responsibility for carrying it out. Instead of looking exclusively to U.S. grantees and contractors to report back to the U.S. government so that U.S. taxpayers can hold their elected officials accountable for following the money trail, we must encourage and support processes by which intended beneficiaries can hold their own governments and project implementers answerable for results. Local communities want to be involved in the selection of contractors and activity sites, in monitoring and reporting on progress and in certifying that programs are administered competently and honestly. This may take more time than the current program cycle allows, and it will require greater transparency over operations.

It’s only in the last decade or two that USAID and other international aid agencies started paying much attention to what poor people actually want. Even so, there remains a limited degree of alignment between U.S. assistance and people’s top priorities. At the same time, the model of relying on preliminary consultation with affected communities — often through one or more town hall-style meetings — is not sufficient to produce real buy-in from those with a stake in the outcome.

The best way to advance country ownership is to equip citizens to make reasonable demands of their governments, to empower governments to deliver on their promises and to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make sound decisions.

Because the United States relies on a model of horizontal accountability — our system is based on checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches — we may not fully appreciate the value of vertical accountability. Particularly in systems without strong, independent legislatures and judicial branches, it is the duty of civil society, including the media, to conduct oversight of the government. By rerouting feedback loops, investing in local research and statistical agencies, promoting transparency of budgets, financial flows and contracts and strengthening watchdogs, we can simultaneously reduce fiduciary risk and build the foundation for inclusive and responsive governance.

The first version of country ownership, which I’ll call “1.0,” was a basic partnership model: “Do with, not for.” And for the next 40 years — until the world reached consensus on new principles for aid effectiveness, enshrined in the Paris Declaration, the Accra Agenda for Action and the Busan Partnership — it remained the standard, or at least the ideal, since it was not consistently followed.

Country ownership 2.0 — the current regime — can be summed up as “Do through, not just with.” Developing countries are no longer content to be merely consulted or coordinated with; they want the trust and flexibility to administer funds as they see fit.

While most donors have increased their use of “country systems,” which is considered by researchers at the Brookings Institution and Center for Global Development to be an indicator of the quality of official development assistance, “doing through” has been something of a square peg in a round hole. As long as we clutch the reins of power and demand accountability first and foremost to our own political institutions, this model of country ownership is bound to fail. It’s like teaching someone to drive without ever letting them get behind the wheel.

Stay tuned for part 6 of our seven-part series "Foreign aid effectiveness: A radical rethink," written by Diana Ohlbaum, and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Gsw diana 3

    Diana Ohlbaum

    Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, an executive committee member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm. She has served as senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a senior professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives.