Politics of Poverty

What must be inexorably-linked in aid? Accountability and country ownership

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Women from the village of Bandafassi, Senegal celebrate following a Saving for Change meeting. Aminata Barry (center) used group support to create an embroidery business. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / Oxfam America

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s new agenda focuses the tools that partner country stakeholders need to make smart decisions about their own development.

“…together, accountability and country ownership are vital prerequisites to building the kind of capacity in developing countries that will help enable leaders and citizens to take responsibility for their own development.”

This is from the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s new policy paper, which was released yesterday. MFAN is calling for the US government to advance its commitment to ensuring aid accountability and country ownership. “Without both pillars standing side-by-side, we revert to old, tired, and stagnant paradigms of aid,” says the paper. It discusses three specific areas to both pillars necessary to ensure #TheWayForward:

Accountability through Transparency

People in poor countries should be able to hold their governments accountable for how they invest resources intended for development. To do so, people like Adeso Executive Director Degan Ali in Kenya needs high-quality, accessible, timely, and usable data about how US aid dollars are being invested in her country. Semkae Kilonzo, Coordinator of the Policy Forum in Tanzania, argues that this aid transparency, in turn, can build stronger local institutions, because as Elizabeth Missokia, Executive director of HakiElimu in Tanzania says, “It’s for citizens and CSOs to hold government to account.” But she asks, “How do we do that unless the donors also publish what they fund?

Accountability through Evaluation

MFAN argues in the new paper that “evaluations need to push the envelope – testing underlying assumptions, validating methodologies, and comparing alternative approaches in pursuit of effectiveness.” Most important to this is the effort to include meaningful feedback from those whom aid is intended to reach. As Oxfam found in Haiti last year with Feed the Future, too often people have trouble getting aid donors to pay attention to their concerns and hear their ideas about how to make projects work better. Closing the feedback loop depends on citizen engagement, not a one-way information sharing process.

Accountability through Learning

One of my mantras when I was a monitoring and evaluation advisor was, “Don’t make old mistakes. Make new ones.” Unfortunately, despite the resources, expertise, and goodwill invested in the aid industry, stories of ineffective aid are uncovered again and again. Engineers Without Borders Canada stresses that a facilitative approach to development practice will require changes to the direct delivery model of aid, which relies on contracts management rather than program adaptation. They’re urging USAID to think about what’s needed to change activities in a timely manner, and make mid-course corrections, which is even more important in today’s rapidly-changing world. For example, what barriers need to be addressed if Ben Affleck is making it known that local, community-based organizations (CBOs) are the best option for enabling lasting change in conflict situations like the DRC?

Ownership of Priorities

People know what’s most needed to address the problems they are facing, yet too often decisions about how aid dollars are spent is made very far from those closest to the issue. For example, in the early days following Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), local nonprofit Rural Development Institute-Leyte (RDI-Leyte) understood that addressing damage to agricultural assets would be crucial in any response to the typhoon – something that international organizations, at first, failed to grasp. “We may only know our areas, but we know our areas deeply,” says Josefa Roces-Pizon, Executive Director of the Rural Development Institute-Leyte (RDI-Leyte).

Also, for example, in Rwanda, “Social audits offer an alternative to sitting in government offices and making priorities on behalf of citizens. It enables community members to say, ‘You are talking about building a marketplace, but we need clean water. Why is this?’” explains Alexis Nkurunziza, the Policy & Advocacy Coordinator for CLADHO, a network of human rights organizations in Rwanda, which works with local communities to provide feedback on government programs.

Ownership of Implementation

Power lies in the rural areas in Malawi, in the authority of chiefs, churches, and mosques. So Malawi’s first female president, Dr. Joyce Banda, has so far enlisted more than 12,000 chiefs in the country to take the lead in changing attitudes and perceptions at the grassroots level in order to address Malawi’s maternal mortality issue. Malawi’s leaders’ efforts to change harmful traditions from the ground up are getting results. As a result of this initiative, in two years Malawi’s Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood has managed to reduce maternal mortality rates significantly, from 675 per 100,000 live births to 460. This example of ownership of implementation from Malawi demonstrates why and how, as Paul Farmer argues, localization of aid decisions and dollars can unleash the potential for change.

Ownership of Resources

When pro-poor public investments are made – either through aid, taxes, extractive revenues, etc.—active citizens’ oversight of public finances is what can hold governments accountable and improve their lives. “What we’re seeing is more program-based budgeting, performance incentives and accountability within civil service, and more realistic policy debates,” says Neil Cole, Executive Secretary of the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI), who argues that providing development assistance through country systems should be the rule, not the exception. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, founder and executive director of the Society for Democratic Initiatives in Sierra Leone, says, “If we don’t get it right in the next few years, we won’t get it right. Oil money is coming and the disadvantage of an abundance of resources is a threat to democratic space. We need to get it right, now.”

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