International development design participants and community members work together to build a village storage bin. Photo by: Pertina Nyamukondiwa / USAID / CC BY-NC 

This is the last 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.

Getting to a model of country ownership in which most of the ideas emanate from developing countries themselves, where risks are managed through transparency rather than micromanagement and where countries are able to responsibly raise and manage their own resources, is a long-term project. While the end point may be one that most would agree on, the transition will be legally complex and politically difficult.

Congress will need to lift dozens of restrictions that force the U.S. Agency for International Development to buy American products, meet sector-specific earmarks and directives and spend money quickly. Unfortunately, they have little political incentive to make these changes, limited understanding of why doing so would serve our country’s long-term interest, and even less trust in the executive branch to do it right.

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
Old wine in new bottles
Country ownership 3.0

U.S.-based development companies will need to re-examine their basic business models, establishing local affiliates or subsidiaries that can build lasting relationships, compete for contracts and add value to the economy and society. International nongovernmental organizations, too, will need to adjust to the new environment, and many are doing so already, with various degrees of sophistication.

NGOs would also do well to consider the admonition of Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of CIVICUS: “Often overly reliant on state funding, we have allowed our work — our ambitions even — to become constrained by donor requirements, by the need to avoid biting the hand that feeds us. Where once a spirit of volunteerism was the lifeblood of the sector, many NGOs today look and behave like multinational corporations.”

Reverting to their original, private and voluntary character might not be such a bad thing.

Just as members of Congress will need to refrain from micromanaging USAID, USAID will need to refrain from micromanaging its partners. This can be accommodated by radically expanding transparency and consultation. USAID, and the President Barack Obama’s administration in general, have tended to confuse “consultation” with “notification,” somehow believing that informing Congress about decisions that already have been made is in any way equivalent to soliciting congressional viewpoints and taking them into consideration before reaching a conclusion. There is, undeniably, a Gordian knot of failure, miscalculation and mistrust that will take years if not decades to unravel.

Yet in spite of all the systems, processes and assumptions that limit them, USAID and its partners — together and individually — have helped bring about remarkable improvements in the lives of people around the world. In any given developing country you can find aid-funded projects that are smart, innovative, well-run, effective and have the full buy-in of local populations and intended beneficiaries. There are millions of people whose lives have been saved, whose dignity has been restored, and whose futures have been brightened as a result of U.S. taxpayer assistance.

Diana Ohlbaum on USAID’s transformation

In conjunction with the international community, the United States has helped enable the achievement, well ahead of schedule, of global goals that many once dismissed as being overly ambitious: halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day, halving the percentage of people without access to an improved drinking water source, and virtually eliminating gender disparity in primary school enrollment. In particular, the progress that has been made on HIV and AIDS, on advancing the rights of women and girls, and on building democratic institutions is unlikely to have happened without the initiative, the diplomatic muscle and the generous funding of the United States.

Thus the radical rethink is required not because there is disagreement about where we are headed but because there is a lack of clear thinking about how to get there. Underneath all the criticisms there remains a remarkable degree of consensus about the world we seek and the basic principles that should guide us. However, in an environment of tight budgets, growing conflict and instability and political paralysis, we must find ways to break out of the patterns that prevent us from doing the greatest possible good with the resources we have available.

Former USAID administrator Rajiv Shah deserves enormous credit not only for cultivating an atmosphere of learning and innovation at USAID, for which he is rightly and widely applauded, but also for advancing the principle of country ownership. His support and encouragement for the “local solutions” initiative have been critical to making the U.S. approach to development more sustainable and more transformational.

The final two years of the Obama administration, coinciding with the preparation and launch of a universal agenda to eradicate extreme poverty from the face of the Earth by 2030, offers the perfect opportunity to expand and deepen the commitment to country-led development.  President Obama should use this opening to appoint, expeditiously, a new administrator who is able and willing to lead the charge.

Ultimately, the responsibility is up to us, in the development community, to rise above our organizational differences and individual interests to demand a system that works for the people we are trying to help. We may be doing well by doing good, but we’d be doing better by putting ourselves out of business.

Revisit 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

  • 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.