This is a cross-post from the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.
Aid does not cause development; people do. I’m talking about the local leaders who can access and actually use that aid effectively towards development outcomes. Oxfam is hearing that local leaders are starting to give the US government better marks for how the US invests its aid.
These local leaders are not telling us that the US government has fixed all its problems. And they still have many criticisms of the US approach. But they are observing positive changes in how the US government seeks to engage them and support local priorities.
For too long the aid that the US government provided was not a useful tool for local leaders. Too often it actually undermined what they were trying to accomplish. But over the past few years, as the United States has confronted the limitations of this approach, a number of US policymakers and political leaders have increasingly tried to reorient US development policies and programs to make them more responsive to and useful to local partners.
But have changes in US government development policies in Washington changed practice on the ground?
The beginning of the current reform trend can perhaps be dated to the establishment of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, but since then, it has gained momentum. The US government now has a range of policies designed to support and leverage the leadership of local partners, such as:
- Millennium Challenge Corporation – investing in locally-defined priorities and rewarding good governance;
- Feed the Future – Increasing support for and investments in national agriculture plans, and engaging smallholders in an effort to boost their success;
- Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) – restoring investment choices to the country level, and doing it via a deliberate process that begins with country priorities;
- Implementation and Procurement Reform (now called local solutions) – actually making direct investments in local leadership.
Oxfam has applauded these policy approaches along the way. They are not all directly related or comparable, but they all have the same DNA; they are built around the priorities and agency of local leaders.
But we wanted to know: Have changes in US government development policies in Washington changed practice on the ground? Do local leaders see a change? And do they like the changes they see? So we conducted extensive field interviews with citizens, civil society representatives, business people and public officials in Bangladesh, Ghana, Malawi, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, and Senegal to find out.
The overwhelming response we heard? YES: 83% of the local leaders we surveyed saw a significant, positive change in the US approach over the previous few years.
This is not to say that local leaders are completely happy with the behavior and practices of the US government. In fact, we often heard continued frustrations about difficulties working with the US government, as well as demands for the US government to continue to improve partnerships.
Oxfam spoke to a narrow number of people in a group of countries where US reforms are most advanced. Thus it would be wrong to generalize too broadly about how what we heard might apply in other cases and contexts and it is much too early to draw conclusions about the developmental impact of most of these still short-lived reforms.
But, what we can say is that we are getting early positive feedback on how local partners are observing changes in US approaches. Those we interviewed overwhelmingly observe increased US alignment with partner country priorities, more stakeholder engagement, and ultimately, more opportunities for local leaders to build partnerships with the US government that they didn’t have before.
In particular, the US government has a lot more work to do to close the feedback loop with local actors. While three out of four of the people we surveyed told us they were having more and improved communication with US government development personnel, two thirds still felt they lacked influence over US government decisions regarding development in their country. This information can help inform how these steps in the right direction are taken forward and strengthened.
The fight now is not only to ensure that these reforms prevail politically in Washington, but also to help improve their implementation and accelerate their progress, in order to restore the United States’ historic role as a global development leader.
These US government reforms to support local ownership have been hard to implement, both politically and practically. But Oxfam believes this remains the most direct path to supporting local leadership over the development agenda. One civil society leader in Bangladesh framed the ownership challenge thusly:
“If you have a direct road or a diverted road, which way do you go? You go the direct road.”