Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Country Ownership and Accountability: New Wine…New Bottles?

Post by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA, CEO

As a member of the MFAN Executive Committee and the Co-Chair on their Working Group on Country Ownership, Tessie shares her thoughts on their new policy paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond.

We have heard it all before. The donor-recipient paradigm of foreign aid is outdated. Foreign assistance breeds corruption (reports like this one are all too common). It is no longer the primary source of development finance - so why even bother discussing aid effectiveness? What to do? Retreating from the world is not an option for the United States. U.S. foreign assistance remains an indispensable tool - and a strong expression - of our country’s economic and national security imperatives. And we do know more than we think about how to deliver more effective foreign aid.

On April 16th, MFAN (Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network) is renewing and reinvigorating its call for reforming foreign aid with a new policy paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond.

The paper focuses on what are two essential and mutually reinforcing pillars of aid reform: transparency/accountability and country ownership. Why? Not (just) because the US government endorsed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (in which country ownership is one of five key principles) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI - in which donor countries commit to a single standard for sharing aid information to encourage ownership and coordination). Nor is it (just) because adhering to these pillars is the right thing to do. The fact is there is mounting evidence that aid, designed and delivered around these pillars, is more likely to have higher impact and deliver sustainable benefits well beyond the original time frame of the donor-funded project.

Take the research my own organization has been doing, for example. Plan International began over 75 years ago with the mission of improving the lives of children orphaned by conflict (in this case the Spanish Civil War). Our solution at the time was simple: give the children clothes and a home. But over time our approach has continued to evolve, as our awareness as an organization grew that poverty was not as much about people lacking certain things, but rather being unable to make change for themselves. Thus the concept of Child Centered Community Development (CCCD) emerged and evolved over 25 years ago. CCCD emphasizes locally-designed initiatives that involve children in the community’s dialogue to set priorities. CCCD starts at the community level but in every case involves dialogue with government authorities at all levels.

Over the last 5 years Plan has been investing in rigorous research to help us answer the question: does community ownership improve development outcomes, and how? We started with a meta-analysis of the program effectiveness and sustainability of CCCD commissioned by my organization and done by the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs in the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. The report made generally positive conclusions on the effectiveness of CCCD, and found a strong link between community ownership and sustainable behavior change. It turns out a strong voice helps build robust communities and this in turn improves the accountability of government service providers.

Plan has also been investing in ex-post impact research that evaluates how well communities are doing 7-8 years after Plan has exited. The key questions we ask: are improvements in community health, education, and access to services sustainable beyond Plan’s involvement, and what are the elements that affect the degree of sustainability? Again the results of these studies (carried out in Kenya and the Philippines to date) are encouraging and very strongly link community ownership with sustainable impact. Both studies also indicate that much remains to be explored, including whether local ownership is more important for the long-term success of certain activities or in certain sectors than others.

There are many elements that still need to be teased out in these studies. And I realize that our definition of ownership is much narrower and perhaps even radically different than what some policy makers may have in mind. But there is no question that the research suggests that these two pillars, when embedded into how aid is designed and delivered, can and do generate powerful results.

Foreign assistance, as initially conceived decades ago, was a relatively straightforward proposition: it was about resource transfers and the path to development was thought to be linear and well understood. Today we know better. Addressing development challenges requires more than identifying a technical fix to a complex problem. Most of the problems we are seeking to tackle – from eradicating malaria, to reducing infant mortality, to enabling girls to attend and stay in school, are examples of "wicked problems": socially complex, difficult to define clearly, and unstable. Tackling these challenges requires that we think very differently about how we design, deliver, and evaluate foreign aid. Embedding accountability and ownership into policy and practice so that assistance efforts keep pace with an ever changing environment is critical to more effective programming.

The time to push Congress and the Administration on these key reforms is now. While both the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration have taken important steps to push country ownership and accountability forward, more can and must be done to incorporate these key pillars into policy and practice.

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