Sounding off on the balance of autonomy and oversight of aid delivery

Residents of San Jose de Ocoa, Dominican Republic help in the off-loading of USAID relief boxes during a distribution for typhoon survivors. Photo by: Juan Torres-Diaz / USAID / CC BY-NC

Has the U.S. Agency for International Development become too controlling of the projects it funds?

USAID has imposed myriad restrictions on how its programs are carried out, a surprising practice following its pronouncement to move away from large contracts toward grants, which by its nature should allow more autonomy in implementation, noted Diana Ohlbaum, former deputy director of the agency's Office of Transition Initiatives.

Ohlbaum penned a seven-part series of commentaries on how to improve the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid exclusive to Devex.

“For sure, a degree of distance and creative tension between funder and recipient is necessary; one who is entrusted with the cost-effective, legal and proper use of taxpayer dollars has very different motives and responsibilities than one who has a vision to turn into reality. However, there is a real danger that excessive meddling can simply squash that vision,” Ohlbaum, who is also an executive committee member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm, wrote in part 1 of "Foreign aid effectiveness: A radical rethink."

The commentary resonated with many Devex readers, who shared insights on contract implementation and debated about evaluation.

It is very hard to strike a balance between oversight and autonomy, according to Rick van der Kamp. Allowing contracting firms to just go ahead and execute work as it sees fit assumes a level of professionalism and nonprofit orientation which is difficult to find, he said. A standard trick, he noted, is to submit a bid with an impressive lineup of experts and replace them with cheaper alternatives after winning the contract.

One alternative, van der Kamp proposed, is issuing contract payable upon results. Such an arrangement, though, does have some drawbacks such as giving development technocrats “an awful lot of power” to peg a price for results and monitoring and evaluation experts the levers to assess success and failure.

For reader named Usadano, aid delivery can do with less contracting and reporting constraints, with implementing partners, particularly local organizations, having more autonomy to manage programs..

John Mpungu shared a similar view.

“The more you let those being helped involved in what is being done the better the chances of getting buy-in and getting sustainability,” Mpungu wrote.

He, however, emphasized that his view was not an argument for zero monitoring and accountability but that M&E rules should be mutually agreed upon and not imposed on beneficiaries. He said he favors giving contracts to local organizations with good reputation on delivery and accountability and bringing in international development agencies only to partner and transfer skills to local organisations.

“After so many have ‘discovered’ this fundamental principle of giving help where it is needed instead of where we think it should go, I suppose we should give thanks that the aid community is, at last, catching on,” Counter2u meanwhile noted. “But the idea not to measure is dangerous if extended to outcomes and has been proven so by the failure of accountability in the U.S. government. The two ideas oppose each other. So much for that glimmer of hope.”

How can donor agencies like USAID strike a balance between maintaining effective oversight and giving implementing partners autonomy over carrying out development programs? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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

About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.