Politics of Poverty

Giving communities ownership over aid: What does it take?

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A community health worker teaches a group of mothers principles of nutrition as part of the MCC Community-Based Health and Nutrition to Reduce Stunting in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam Zvanovec)

Country ownership is a longstanding principle of effective aid, but how do we do it well?

Bonaria Siahaan is the Executive Director and CEO of the Millennium Challenge Account in Indonesia (MCA-Indonesia).

In the world of international development the concept of “country ownership” is longstanding. It has been widely accepted as a core principle of aid effectiveness by donors and developing countries alike. So why are we still talking about it?

The fact is it’s no longer a question of is ownership of aid programs needed or not – but how do we do it? What does it take?  While the rhetoric sounds good and the principles are inarguable, fostering ownership is not a simple linear process.  Yes, it requires a process, no matter what type of program you’re dealing with.  And that process requires engagement – between the beneficiaries – who will be the ultimate owner of the program and its results – and the donor.  It is through this engagement, we are able to understand the needs voiced by local beneficiaries, whether the issues we raise as a donor are relevant or of high priority to them, and what they see as the solutions that would work.

But this is just the beginning.  Fostering ownership is a challenging process. We are confronted both by external factors posed by our beneficiaries and partners as well as by our own internal hurdles and development bible.

When working with local partners – whether government, civil society, or private sector – we need to be sensitive to a variety of factors, be it institutional, human resource capacity, financial affordability, culture, and more. These are real day-to-day aspects that dictate the lives and work of our partners and beneficiaries, and the way we choose to support them will, one way or another, affect and be affected by those things. While we may believe that our support will bring positive changes to their lives, the context we’re operating in will test those propositions.  Do we have the energy and patience to accommodate and deal with these challenges?  Have we come well-prepared with the appropriate methods and tools to work through them?

This brings us to the internal challenge.  Despite our intense efforts to engage, we tend to come to beneficiaries with assumptions and a prescriptive approach.  And this is mostly because we are bound by the policies and procedures that dictate the way we work.  Having gained insight and better inputs to the program design, the reality of having to comply with our procedures often limits or hinders our ability to foster ownership.  The structures could range from timeline limitations, strict procurement procedures, overly burdensome reporting requirements, or conflicting institutional priorities – just to name a few.  How do we overcome these internal challenges to allow flexible responses that make sense and work for those that we propose to support?

Ownership is about allowing developing countries and their citizens to lead decision-making, take charge of programs, and give room for them to make choices.  Our ability to create that space will play a major role in fostering ownership early and effectively.  The question is, have our policies and procedures adapted enough to respond to and accommodate local leadership?

Sustainability is the development mantra that every single donor and governments prescribes to. It is the ultimate measurement of a successful program, after all. Whether ownership was taken seriously is evidenced in whether activities and / or results initiated under the program were sustained.  And at the end of the day, interventions will only be embraced and adopted IF and WHEN the people involved feel the interventions are relevant to their lives and that they owned the process itself.

Ownership involves challenges, big and small, but it works. The gains made by using ownership-based approaches in any context make it worth it. It eases program implementation, creates greater likelihood of adoption, and ensures sustainability and long-term impact.  But to translate the ownership rhetoric into action and reality, we must also be prepared to make the necessary adaptations in the way we work.

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