The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The politics of partnership

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Why taking a risk may actually be the smartest thing US foreign aid can do

If the ultimate goal of foreign aid is to help countries help themselves, then bypassing local organizations and governments in delivering aid defeats the purpose of aid. The United States and other donors know this, but it’s a hard habit to kick.

This bridge spanning the Sekong River, shown in 2007, is slated to be part of a highway connecting Laos and Cambodia. The bridge and highway will help Cambodians engage in trade with their neighbor. Brett Eloff / Oxfam America
This bridge spanning the Sekong River, shown in 2007, is slated to be part of a highway connecting Laos and Cambodia. The bridge and highway will help Cambodians engage in trade with their neighbor. Brett Eloff / Oxfam America

Today, Oxfam releases a new report featuring new research from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Malawi, and Tanzania, identifying the real challenges donors confront when they trust and support local leaders. We’ll be launching the report on Tuesday with remarks from Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), Ghanaian Member of Parliament Albert Kan-Dapaah, health activist Martha Kwataine from Malawi, and businessman Evans Rweikiza of the Tanzania Private Sector Foundation.

The report outlines nine concrete ways the US can be a better partner and get the most out of foreign assistance. Here’s what we found:

Worried about corruption?

1. Support the good ones: promising leaders and agencies who are changing their societies
2. Support political and civil rights activists to hold them accountable
3. Make a habit of pairing an investment in good government with an investment in “watchdogs” in civil society and the media

Worried that poor people won’t have enough capacity to do it for themselves?

4. Support partners for the long-term, avoid doing it for them
5. Support local institutions directly, so they can grow in professionalism and capacity

Worried poor countries might have different priorities than US aid agencies?

6. Strengthen existing local rules and systems to avoid duplicating their efforts
7. Show some trust: fund the priorities that recipients identify wherever possible
8. But demand performance
9. And encourage transparency

The bottom line: instead of trying to avoid risk, donors should accept and manage risk that comes with genuine partnership, as the only way to get real and lasting development successes.

Why partner now?

The fiscal and economic crises faced by rich countries are putting strains on the volume of aid they are willing to provide. And yet, the scale of the global poverty challenge remains enormous, with one billion people still living with hunger and poverty. While the world is making progress fighting poverty and hunger, that progress simply isn’t coming quickly enough for the poorest. To meet their needs, we need to try new approaches, and work in ways that help poor people lead the fight. That means taking risks to try new approaches and trusting recipients more.

And yet, Congress is often reluctant to let development professionals take on the risk of innovating new approaches. USAID is working to put more trust in poor people and governments; Congress needs to give US government agencies more latitude to trust recipients and build true partnerships—despite these risks. US policy makers and taxpayers need to support these efforts, beyond any partisan line, so the US can support the visions and efforts of people and their government through more effective aid.

Providing aid that is more useful to recipients offers new opportunities—but only if the US invests in building true partnerships with its aid. It is up to US policy makers and taxpayers to support these efforts, beyond any partisan line, so the US can rise to the occasion and step up during this closing window of opportunity on the world stage.

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  1. Pingback: Latest News | U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

  2. email.howmatters@gmail.com'Jennifer Lentfer

    As a worker in the aid industry, I believe our most pressing challenge is to ensure a more inclusive discourse that genuinely listens and responds to those the system is claiming to serve. Therefore, we must change our understanding of what we value (ownership) and what we measure (social change).
    See my write-up after attending yesterday’s launch, juxtaposed with another DC aid industry event: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/12/14/a-tale-of-two-realities/

    Reply

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