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Rising to the Challenge of Local Ownership

By Justin Fugle
Rising to the challenge of local ownership.

When it comes to local ownership and local solutions, we are well past the point of asking whether we can or should do this.  As United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Counselor to the Agency Susan Reichle has said, for USAID to remain a leading development agency, “we have to put partnering locally front and center.”

Gayle Smith, President Obama’s nominee as the next USAID Administrator, has long been an advocate of local ownership.  The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has spent 10 years as a leader on local ownership, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is now moving forward aggressively with its new sustainability strategy and index. In this context, the question before all players in the U.S. development space, but particularly external actors like International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and contractors, is how we adapt.  None of this change happens quickly.  Alan Fowler wrote, “Northern NGOs simply find it difficult to forego power.” Yet, that is exactly what must happen in order to achieve the long-term impact of development programs and to see more nations become independent of foreign aid.  

As Plan International USA’s CEO, Tessie San Martin, said during a recent panel at the InterAction Forum in Washington, DC, “For organizations like Plan, this is not about doing the same things in different ways -- it is about doing different things. At the most basic level, Plan is working to yield our power to local actors but that is often challenging and scary. Our partnership guidelines lay out the five stages of the transition. Initially, Plan partners with local NGOs for capacity building and project implementation. Next, local NGO priorities become part of Plan’s long-term strategy. In the [next] phase, program design is led by national NGOs with Plan’s support and national NGOs are systematically consulted in Plan’s policies and strategies. In the final phase, Plan country offices in places like Colombia and India have been spun off to become independent members of local civil society in their own right.”

The high level of interest in adapting to local ownership was demonstrated by the standing-room only audience of nearly 100 participants at the InterAction panel. They heard USAID’s Local Solutions Coordinator Liz Warfield explain, “The goal is not localization, it’s sustainability. When project results don’t sustain, you’ve lost the millions spent on the project. So, that’s the biggest risk.” Later, in response to an audience question, she added, “I do think the whole thing is a role transformation, but there is a role for everyone. You [INGOs] may not do as much direct service delivery. It’s different now like what Tessie just talked about with facilitation and brokering.”

Casey Dunning, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development agreed. “Developing countries are changing, too,” she said. “It’s not just up to us to make these decisions.”

Fellow panelist Barbara Turner, President of URC-CHS challenged USAID saying, “I think USAID’s Local Systems Framework is excellent. It has 10 excellent points and I wish USAID was doing them.” Turner added, “We need to stop just measuring results; if we want to get to sustainability, then USAID needs sustainability indicators.”

Warfield responded that USAID has committed to “defining, prioritizing, and measuring local ownership across the Presidential Initiatives and Earmarks” by December 2015.

So, perhaps USAID metrics that measure capacity building, local ownership, and sustainability will be the next step forward on this long road. 

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