Sustainability through local ownership

By Justin Fugle
September 30, 2016

In a return to best practices, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s new policy and strategy guidance (ADS) tells U.S. missions to operationalize sustainability through local ownership in all parts of the program cycle.

This is great news for many USAID career staff, whose experience has shown that development programs cannot be effectively implemented on a year-to-year basis. The timeline for lasting impact on girls’ lives rooted in local institutions is simply longer. It moves sustainability through local ownership into the mainstream of USAID’s operations — building on the recent work of leading missions and USAID’s Local Solutions Framework. It recognizes that annual budget cycle pressures still too often override USAID’s own good instincts and best practices.

With the new ADS, any USAID mission director or program manager who wants to prioritize lasting impact now has both the tools and the mandate to make it happen. Fundamentally, USAID and other donors and development organizations have always supported sustainability. Who can argue against the idea that taxpayer dollars need to outlive the projects they are spent on? If a highway fell apart as soon as the asphalt cooled, who would build one?

Sustainability will be factored into future USAID missions

During the last five years, there has been a welcome pendulum swing back toward making sustainability operational and tangible in USAID’s programs. Leading missions have increased their alignment with local priorities, implemented more through local actors and encouraged local co-financing.

This change in approach also recognizes the human and financial capabilities of the partner countries, many of which are more prepared than ever to co-design, co-implement and co-finance their own development. This includes project participants, like the adolescent girls and young women with whom Plan International USA works to create the change they want to see in their communities.

The new ADS Chapter 201, titled “Promote Sustainability Through Local Ownership” and fully revised by USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning,  is worth quoting at length:

The sustainability and long-term success of development assistance ultimately requires local ownership and strengthening the capacity of local systems to produce development outcomes at the regional, national, sub-national, or community levels, as appropriate. USAID should seek out and respond to the priorities and perspectives of local stakeholders, including the partner country government, beneficiaries, civil society, the private sector, and academia. These processes should be inclusive of the poorest, most marginalized populations and women and girls. USAID assistance should be designed to align with the priorities of local actors; leverage local resources; and increase local implementation to sustain results over time.”

Moving from theory to operations, sustainability through local ownership then cascades from USAID’s policy goals to program strategy, program designs, activity designs and funding obligations. All of the following sections of the new ADS emphasize its central importance for achieving the goals of U.S. foreign assistance:

— “USAID’s Policy Principles”

— “Agency-Wide Policy Framework”

— “Program Cycle Principles”

— “Overview of a Country Strategy”

— “Functions of a Country Strategy”

— “Setting Development Objectives”

— “Project Design Team”

— “Project Design Planning”

— “Project Design Review and Approval”

— “Content of Project Appraisal Document”

— “Project Monitoring Plan”

— “Project Appraisal Review and Approval”

— “Activity Design and Implementation”

— “Acquisition and Assistance Design Process”

It’s nearly start to finish. Since this new policy guidance is the result of 18 months of consultations with USAID’s Washington leadership, career staff and the missions, it reflects a level of consensus across the agency. Since the ADS is fully revised only every few years, this new guidance goes a long way toward the institutionalization of sustainability through local ownership, as advocated by Plan International USA, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) and others.  MFAN noted this important progress in a recent letter to USAID Administrator Gayle Smith.

The vital missing pieces are the indicators and evaluations that would document mission success in building sustainability. As I noted in an earlier blog, there are already promising examples within USAID of using ex-post evaluations for that purpose, and this new guidance will hopefully encourage more missions to identify the programs that really worked by creating lasting impact. Findings from those ex-post evaluations would then help missions create the more sustainable program designs called for by the new ADS.