Politics of Poverty

Shifting to local ownership of aid on both sides of the pond

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4 new publications in the UK and US suggest that a renewed focus may be emerging.

The question on country ownership, that “key pillar of the international aid effectiveness agenda,” is this—who’s ready to let go?

Now, after four new publications have come out of within the last month, we may have some more answers on if/how this is happening:

1)     Elevating the Community’s Agenda: Honing USAID Forward’s Approach to Local Ownership by MercyCorps

Like Oxfam America earlier this year, MercyCorp’s research found that while recent USAID Forward reforms are ambitious and welcome steps, there is still a long way to go. “Getting donor practices and configurations on local ownership right will ultimately pave the way to more sustainable development practices.” (See country ownership statements from PEPFAR, MCC, and GHI.) Most aligned with Oxfam’s policy recommendations is the call to make partnership mechanisms more accessible and comprehensible to local institutions and to enable engagement with new and emerging local actors, not just the “usual suspects.” MercyCorp’s recommendation to see the new role of INGOs as “connective agents, facilitators and catalysts to support locally-led development” needs further probing.

2)     “Country Ownership: The only way forward on development cooperation” addressed to the Global Partnership Steering Group meeting in Addis Ababa this month

The folks at Bond and the UK Aid Network are concerned that “country ownership as the key guiding principle of aid effectiveness remains strong in rhetoric but is dwindling in reality.” The available data they share: 1) budget support is decreasing, 2) mutual accountability shows mixed results in Rwanda, and 3) there’s still no Busan implementation strategy from European members. They say that with the aid effectiveness agenda moving on, there is a danger of losing the country ownership focus—“a huge mistake.” In other words, the road to country ownership is rocky, full of pitfalls and problems. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that donors drive Land Cruisers. They can (and should) stay on the road.

3)     Ending aid dependency through tax: emerging research findings from ActionAid

ActionAid UK’s research shows that developing countries “have already rapidly reduced their dependence on aid since its peak in 2002” through increased revenue mobilization and economic growth. To sustain this progress, they recommend: 1) basing development strategies on increasing progressive taxation; 2) increasing taxation of extractives; 3) adopting aid policies that increase government policy autonomy and accountability; 4) encouraging donors to use aid to build government capacity to negotiate and implement better revenue deals; 5) minimizing more expensive loans or off-budget financing; and 6) enhancing parliamentary, civil society organizations and media focus on government revenue. Makes sense to me.

4)     Localising aid: A whole society approach from Overseas Development Institute

ODI’s whole-of-society approach contains two major priorities for donors: 1) the radical internalization of complexity in strategic and program decisions; and 2) Much better sharing of information between donors, national governments and the public at large. Most interestingly they suggest that the evidence behind the ‘use country systems’ mantra is not that strong – different modalities appear to work well in different situations. Also, despite donor instincts, localizing aid is no more risky than using international contractors or creating parallel systems. (This study by Stephen Knack also offers other interesting evidence on country systems and donor instincts.)

Keeping these important conversations going on country ownership is not just about rhetoric. It is also about moving an entire industry, and overcoming the institutional stagnation and personal pitfalls on the road to country ownership. Here at Oxfam, we’re glad to more people in the conversation.

“Everything has been thought of before, but the difficulty is to think of it again.”

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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