Going Local: Challenges and Opportunities

Aug 8, 2018 by USAID LEARN Comments (0)
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This blog synthesizes key discussion points from the Moving the Needle 2018 morning breakout session on local ownership.

Similar to how the Agency is thinking about self-reliance, local ownership is defined by USAID as “the commitment and ability of local actors―including the governments, civil society, the private sector, universities, individual citizens, and others―to prioritize, resource, and implement development, so that development outcomes have a greater potential to be sustained and generate lasting change without USAID assistance.”

Recent changes at USAID have made local ownership an even greater priority for the Agency. Back in 2016, USAID introduced local ownership as one of its four guiding principles in the updated operational policy (ADS 201). Since then, the Office of Local Sustainability has invested in testing approaches for greater local ownership, and more resources on local ownership have become available on ProgramNet (USAID access only). In addition, based on the definition above, the Agency’s strategic focus on self-reliance is linked to local ownership.

Though there is clear consensus and supportive rhetoric on the importance of local ownership, getting there often remains elusive. Why is that? And what needs to change to align our rhetoric with our reality? During a breakout session of Moving the Needle 2018, participants dove into these questions in small groups facilitated by Danielle Pearl and Shohreh Kermani-Peterson of USAID’s Office of Local Sustainability, Mackson Maphosa and Rebecca Oser from The Manoff Group (a 2017 Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Case Competition Winner), and Dan Honig from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Across conversations, two systemic issues arose―time and resources, and control―that would potentially require us to design and implement programming in a fundamentally different way to achieve greater local ownership.

Time & Resources: A focus on local ownership requires us to invest our time and resources differently. It requires USAID and implementing partners to spend more time listening to and collaborating with local actors to build trusting relationships, agree on shared goals, share information, identify respective roles, and achieve results. It also requires more time for learning about and with local communities and systems to ensure interventions are context-driven and sustainable.

In addition, local actors are in no way homogenous. We have to take time to move beyond the “usual suspects” and reach out to those who may have divergent views. We also need time to understand actors’ interests and influence, devising strategies that are responsive to the political context in which we work.

One successful example of this clear investment in achieving greater local ownership came from The Manoff Group’s 2017 winning case competition entry from western Zimbabwe. The purpose of the activity was to improve nutrition practices, including optimal breastfeeding for mothers and babies. A midpoint survey indicated that some behaviors were improving while others were not, in part because their improvement required endorsement and support from male partners.

The Manoff Group realized they needed to change tactics and engage men more intentionally as allies. They began by facilitating conversations with both women and men. First, they asked women what support they need from men to optimize breastfeeding and provide better nutrition to their infants. They then took those suggestions to the men, asking: which of these behaviors are you already doing and which are you willing to try? This eventually resulted in a list of new behaviors men felt they could commit to. The Manoff Group also ensured discussions with men involved local leaders who were most respected under the assumption that if they began modeling new behaviors, other men were more likely to follow suit. Moreover, they identified culturally appropriate messaging that simultaneously built on men’s existing values and encouraged new behaviors. Their impact evaluation data demonstrated a significant improvement in key behaviors in targeted communities vs. control communities. A supportive prime (CNFA) and donor (USAID/Zimbabwe) made the investment of time and resources in this approach possible; those involved realized behavior change can never be imposed upon but rather must be negotiated with and owned by community members. This case demonstrates that giving participants a voice in shaping and selecting interventions sets the stage for local ownership and ultimately increases the likelihood of sustainable impact.

Control: Local ownership, by its very name, has implications for who is in control. If the goal is to get to a point where local actors prioritize, implement, and finance their own development, then control needs to at the very least be shared between USAID and local counterparts. In the above example, The Manoff Group played a facilitative role, acting as an intermediary between men and women in the community. Ultimate decision-making control rested with the community members to decide which behaviors they were willing to adjust.

USAID’s Office of Local Sustainability is also grappling with the issue of control but from a different angle: who controls the flow of information, and how does this affect accountability? With USAID/Morocco and other missions, they are thinking about how USAID can manage feedback loops in ways that support greater local ownership (see IRC’s resource on the same topic here). Typically feedback loops flow back up to USAID as the donor because the flow of information is embedded in and shaped by power relationships: who has the money, who has to meet requirements, and who is reporting to whom. Because USAID most often sets the agenda, brings in the resources, and sets out reporting requirements that shape management decisions, there is a tendency toward extractive relationships that support an upward flow of information and accountability to the donor rather than to local actors. It can be rare for information about program efficiency and effectiveness provided to USAID to flow back “down” to local partners, the communities those partners serve, and other local stakeholders. Nonetheless, we recognize that for development outcomes to be sustained beyond the end of our assistance, there has to be accountability to local constituents of development, not just to donors.

Through Local Works and the Cooperative Development Program, USAID is exploring and learning about how to rebalance these information flows in ways that shift ownership of information and decision-making toward local actors and the communities they serve, while remaining accountable to US taxpayers for achieving sustainable outcomes.

Participants also discussed a recent study by Dan Honig that analyzed about 10,000 development projects. He found that aid agencies achieve better results when using bottom-up approaches that empower frontline workers and organizations to make decisions using their local knowledge and relationships. The study finds that we are more likely to miss the mark on our development goals when we lead with a headquarters-driven, top-down management approach. While some may perceive that bottom-up approaches incur more risk due to a loss of centralized control, the study demonstrates the opposite: in most scenarios, top-down fails more often. Why? Because overly prescriptive rules and controls meant to curtail bad behavior can also curtail good behavior, making it difficult for staff to apply locally relevant knowledge and adapt programs (i.e., “navigate by judgment”).

These high-level considerations―both how we spend our time and who controls the agenda―will continue to impact how successful we are in achieving local ownership and supporting countries on their journey to self-reliance. An afternoon session at Moving the Needle 2018 identified specific behaviors and approaches USAID and implementing partners can adopt to get closer to this ideal (read more about those ideas here).

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