Politics of Poverty

What “local solutions” really means

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US foreign aid works best as a tool in the hands of the right local leaders—those trying to solve their own problems in their own nations and neighborhoods. Martha Kwataine (above) is one of them. As a health advocate, Kwataine is leveraging a tiny investment of US foreign aid to protect the health of people in rural communities across Malawi. Read more at: www.oxfamamerica.org/aidworks

USAID’s ambitious reform agenda requires changes in the agency’s partnership modalities.

Semkae Kilonzo is the Coordinator of the Policy Foruma network in of over 100 civil society organizations working to make policies work for ordinary Tanzanians. 

I was surprised to find a lot of eagerness on the part of US policymakers to hear the Tanzanian perspective on how increased transparency of US foreign aid and more direct funding of local institutions could help poverty-fighting efforts in my country. In meetings hosted by Oxfam America and the Global Movement for Budget Transparency, Accountability, and Participation (BTAP) earlier this month, there was acknowledgement that through USAID Forward reforms the language of aid was changing in Washington DC and that those involved in development work were beginning to see the value of this new approach to partnerships.

One aspect of this new approach is the idea around aid supporting locally-led efforts, aka “local solutions.” USAID and many others involved in development work now strongly believe that the most effective initiatives are usually driven by domestic players. People in Washington DC wanted to know from my perspective what ‘supporting locally-led efforts’ would really look like in a country like Tanzania. Here’s three areas where I shared my observations while in DC:

1) Requests for proposals

As the coordinator of the Policy Forum, I receive abrupt, frequent, and abundant Requests For Proposals (RFPs) in my inbox, calling for local organisations to be involved in the implementation of aid programs that can be fairly be interpreted as pre-designed blueprints absent of any local input. Typically, they end just as abruptly with wording like: “Any enquiries regarding the RFP or clarification questions must be received by April 10th, 2014. All Proposals should be received by 1pm Tanzanian time on May 9th, 2014.”

One would expect that in an equal “partnership,” the organizations being encouraged to participate in a these aid programs would be deeply as involved in its design and given enough opportunity to feed their imagination into the process. The emails I receive in Tanzania make me doubt how seriously the idea of supporting domestic solutions is taken. I liken the way RFPs continue to be issued in development to telling a top chef that s/he can cook us any meal they may want, but we want to decide what the ingredients are and give the cooking instructions.

2) Focus on results

I noted with interest USAID’s new language: “we have to pursue a more strategic, focused, and results-oriented approach. From strengthening our policy and budget management to enacting a world-class evaluation policy.” At the outset, this sounds like a sensible and pragmatic thing to do – to obtain value-for-money and to be accountable for aid dollars. But there is an inherent message here that calls for attribution of impact to American dollars spent. This risks overlooking the contribution of both aid recipients and other local organizations that the aid dollars do not directly support, as well as that of other donors.

When a positive change happens, I have seen too often how a one-dimensional, over-enthusiastic focus on attribution undermines the learning process, especially in relation to appreciating how other actors were involved and to understanding the setting and context by which that change occurred.

Here’s what I told donors in DC: You can begin salivating about your program’s success when your influence over local organizations recedes over time and the impact of their work increases. You may find it difficult to claim direct credit when that happens, but that was the desired goal in the first place – to have independent local institutions leading the change.

3) Interactions with donor agency staff

In my experience of working with donor agency staff, I have found that the quest to ‘deliver results’ and the strong focus on first-class ‘evaluation policy’ by agencies has been misconstrued to mean properly-filled out application, planning, and reporting templates by local organizations. They assume that this 1) increases the quality of the intervention, and 2) that agency staff will have better control over the results for which they can claim credit. I can say, however, that what is more important than this bureaucratic outlook is the existence of a shared vision between local organizations and aid agency staffers, as Chris Roche suggests. This shared vision brings you the appetite and passion needed to seek innovation and new opportunities for partnership.

Hard decisions ahead for local organizations and USAID

In a “local solutions” approach by donors, partnership modalities should be designed to safeguard our organizations’ own intellectual and strategic independence, and yet be sufficient enough to uphold accountability. When local organisations are struggling with funding there will always be temptation to go with whoever walks through the door with offer of support, but as a result, strategic independence leaves through the window.

At Policy Forum, we made a conscious decision to expect that any funding relationship we have must be grounded on mutual respect, and based on openness and clarity. This means our preference is a basket-funding approach in which donors and members contribute to the Policy Forum Strategic Plan. This is hence very different from responding to a RFP, for instance. This preferred modality requires a lot of back and forth consultations with potential funders and may be challenging for both parties, but it is our way of ensuring that our autonomy in any partnership is not compromised. Basket funding also enhances Policy Forum’s accountability through a reporting mechanism that is standardized for all donors.

While strides have been made in USAID’s Local Solutions initiative, the next step is putting additional effort into developing new funding modalities and ways of working that put the strategic choices in the hands of partners and puts local ownership of programs at the center of the agency’s thinking.

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