Ben Affleck’s testimony may not have challenged the foreign policy paradigm in Washington last week, but did it highlight how outsiders can help unleash the potential of local change agents?
Ben Affleck’s testimony may not have challenged the foreign policy paradigm in Washington last week, but did it highlight how outsiders can help unleash the potential of local leaders?
Annick Febrey is a Policy and Advocacy Advisor on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness team.*
What happens when Ben Affleck testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on the Democratic Republic of Congo? Two things.
First, a lot of people start asking why Congress listens to celebrities, and perhaps more importantly, why they’re not listening to Congolese people themselves, regardless of Mr. Affleck’s level of knowledge or humility.
And second, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gets three times the media coverage that other hearings on Africa receive.
Over the years, the soon-to-be Batman has been advocating that local, community-based organizations (CBOs) are the best option for enabling lasting change in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though a partnership with USAID, Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) has created and expanded a database of Congolese NGOs to help people donate money directly to Congolese-led organizations. ECI has highlighted the large number of competent and effective local nonprofits that already exist in the Eastern Congo and that have the ability to absorb funds and expand their work.
Present in the DRC for over half a century, Oxfam works on a daily basis with a large number of such NGOs on a range of humanitarian and development projects, as well as on national and international advocacy. Efforts focus on empowering communities to protect and promote their human rights and on unleashing powerful social change across the country.
So did Affleck’s testimony last week highlight new approaches to finding and supporting local capacity and shaping partnerships that work with the Congolese people on equal footing?
Among his recommendations, Affleck suggested that USAID scale up its economic development initiatives in eastern Congo. He noted that, “DRC’s agriculture sector has massive potential…targeted investment in promising Congolese-driven solutions can and will drive economic growth and create jobs.”
Senator Menendez questioned how well locally-driven solutions can work specifically in conflict situations. Mr. Affleck responded that he was most struck by “the need, the ability, the capacity that the Congolese [people] had, the drive they had to make things better for themselves in the midst of war, violence, misery and death. These were people trying their very best to make things better for themselves. Congolese-based community organizations best understood the culture, values, and mores of the place, and as a consequence they have a better ability to work there.”
USAID gets that. It’s why they launched USAID Forward in 2010, an initiative that helps the agency strengthen its ability to partner with local entities by eliminating large, inflexible contracts and by working more directly with local entities. And they’ve made great progress in just a couple years. The agency has increased the amount of direct support by almost 50%. In FY 2010, only 9.7 percent of USAID mission funding was awarded directly to host country government agencies, private sector firms, and local non-governmental organizations. In 2013, 14.3 percent of mission funds were awarded directly to these local institutions, which is half-way toward USAID’s goal of 30 percent by FY 2015.
Research and reports by Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and Results have all highlighted the progress made under USAID Forward, and have recommended additional steps to ensure that institutional changes continue. We are eager for a second USAID Forward progress report this spring.
The DRC needs these kinds of smart investments now more than ever. Following the defeat of the M23 rebel group, lasting peace may finally be in sight, but communities report the situation remains precarious, and more support is needed, including to help them hold their own government to account.
Lina Srivastava, a social innovation strategist, acknowledges that “the problem of lack of representation of local voices globally is a huge problem.” Ben Affleck’s testimony may not have challenged the foreign policy paradigm in Washington, DC last week, but it did highlight what can happen when outsiders help unleash the ability of local change agents to take action and change the circumstances that place or keep people in poverty, responding directly to people’s needs in a way that the humanitarian and development aid system is still not adequately equipped to do.
What happens when ‘people power’ is unleashed? When people practice self-help and mutual aid, leading to self reliance? As the Local First approach notes, “Nowhere is this needed more than in countries that are emerging from conflict.”
Sometimes it takes a celebrity to draw attention to local ownership, but isn’t it always time to invest in it?
* Thanks to Noah Gottschalk, senior policy advisor for humanitarian response at Oxfam America, for his contribution to this article.