Opinion: 5 lessons to guide the journey to self reliance

A woman gathers wood in Chin State, Myanmar. Photo by: Tom Cheatham / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

Worldwide calls to replace traditional approaches to aid and development with cooperation that is underpinned by a narrative of mutual benefit, and with a clearer perspective on self-sufficiency, have been steadily growing louder.

The strongest example is USAID’s “journey to self-reliance,” a significant policy shift that complements the “Africa beyond aid” agenda spearheaded by Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. President Akufo-Addo’s vision has catalyzed a ripple effect across the continent and captured the imaginations of politicians, business leaders, influential experts, and academia. 

In anticipation of withdrawal from the EU, the U.K. government has also become a keen advocate of the self-reliance agenda, with a focus on trade. In 2018, then-Prime Minister Theresa May outlined Britain’s aspiration to become the single largest G-7 investor in Africa by 2022.

Earlier this year, the U.K. parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee launched its “Beyond Aid: The UK’s strategic engagement in Africa” inquiry, which is asking questions about the effectiveness of the government’s new approach to sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in comparison to the less aid-focused engagement with the continent by China, Russia, and the Gulf States.

This convergence in aspirations across north and south is a positive sign, meaning that conditions are ripe for necessary cooperation. USAID’s policy shift spells out that its ultimate aim is for foreign assistance to cease to exist, while the “Africa beyond aid” agenda could forge a new social contract between African governments and their citizens, leverage domestic and foreign resources to get things done, and take their countries beyond the decision-making frameworks of international donors and institutions.

Crown Agents’ mission is to accelerate self-sufficiency and prosperity. We have a long history of partnering with governments and leaders around the world, including in the most fragile states, to improve governance, implement public sector reform and overcome challenges to economic growth in order to foster more opportunities and a better quality of life for citizens.

From our engagement with countries of the global south over the 50 to 60 years since their independence, we’ve distilled five lessons that could contribute to making both the “journey to self-reliance”’ and the “beyond aid” agenda a success:

1. Go with the grain of local reform efforts

Having a sound analysis of a country’s political economy is key to understanding how resources can be best directed, to align with reform agendas that have the necessary political will behind them. In Ukraine, a reform-minded Ministry of Health invited Crown Agents to fix its health procurement systems which had been failing for decades.

Over three years we have generated $50 million in savings for the health budget and secured widespread availability of medicines and treatments that were frequently unavailable in the past. This rare anti-corruption success story was made possible by the confluence of demands for social change from both civil society and a reform-minded minister.  

2. Put governments firmly in the driving seat

In our experience, implementing successful externally funded technical assistance projects often requires careful brokering to manage the differing expectations between the recipient government and donor client. So, the commitment in USAID’s new policy framework to refocus the nature of its relationship with countries as they progress along the trajectory of recipient, to partner, to donor is welcome. However, we would argue that even recipients need to be genuine partners in the critical decisions around how support programs are conceived, designed and delivered.    

3. Empower the frontline

The “Africa beyond aid” idea is underpinned by the need to establish strong social contracts between government and citizens, where governments deliver in ways that tangibly improve people’s lives and future prospects. Similarly, “citizen-centered, citizen-responsive” governance is one key metric, out of 17, that USAID uses to measure how far a country is on its “journey to self-reliance.”

In our results-based financing program in Zimbabwe, which operates in over 800 rural health facilities across the country, we’ve found that devolving budgets and decision-making power down to frontline health workers and communities can deliver dramatic improvements, such as a fourfold increase in the number of women receiving comprehensive antenatal care.  

4. Create a compelling reform narrative that links institutional reform to real-world outcomes

Often, the reforms that will do the most to unlock progress and improve development outcomes involve unglamorous systemic improvements, such as stamping out corruption in the public procurement system or designing effective systems that ensure that health workers get paid regularly. Those of us involved in these sort of back office change processes need to get better at linking such improvements to the issues that politicians and public care most about.

Over the course of 2019, we’ve been saving the Ghanaian Ministry of Finance $30 million through value-for-money assessments of its public infrastructure spending. This means that those funds are available to provide quality education to over 180,000 out-of-school children in the north of the country. Only by articulating this sort of impact more clearly will we continue to secure support for the types of reforms that will progress the journey to self-reliance.

5. Invest long-term in people as changemakers

USAID recognizes countries as having increased self-reliance when they have built human and institutional capacity across the economy, civil society, the government, and the population. Likewise, African governments and business leaders increasingly realize that moving Africa towards self-sufficiency and widespread prosperity is conditional upon optimizing the continent’s human resources and prioritizing the development of an educated, digitally literate and skilled workforce.

For over 60 years our training and professional development program has built the capacity of more than 60,000 professionals from more than 100 countries. We’d argue that harnessing the potential of talented and reform-minded individuals within government and across the private sector to accelerate positive change in their organization is one of the best ways to contribute to a country’s overall progress.

With policy shifts like USAID’s journey to self-reliance, and “Africa beyond aid,” the political and economic interests of rich countries in the north and those of poorer nations in the south are beginning to align. These five pointers could help to translate such high-level aspirations into practical positive progress that we can deliver, together.

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

About the author

  • Amanda Willett

    Amanda Willett is president and CEO of Crown Agents USA. Crown Agents is an award-winning international development social enterprise, established in 1833. Its work reaches over 120 million people in 50 countries, with expertise in public sector transformation, humanitarian and stabilization, procurement reform, last mile supply chain, health system strengthening, and training and professional development. Amanda has over 20 years’ international development experience working on governance, political transition, post-conflict recovery, and humanitarian relief projects.