By Tomi Jaiyeola, Humanitas Global
It’s the same story. Organizations send foreign aid or aid numerous projects in developing countries, yet there seems to be little change in the situations. Many are still living in poverty, projects are stopped as soon as organizations leave, and it rarely feels like any impact is made.
Sustainability has long been the goal and mantra for international programs, but this has been difficult to integrate into large-scale U.S. government-sponsored development programs. Solely providing funds or carrying out projects to address a problem is no longer effective; and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is addressing this through a new policy: Local Systems: A Framework for Supporting Sustained Development. The framework defines clear approaches toward creating a “vision of development that is locally owned, locally led and locally sustained.” The framework entails ten principles:
- Recognize there is always a system
- Engage local systems everywhere
- Capitalize on our convening authority
- Tap into local knowledge
- Map local systems
- Design holistically
- Ensure accountability
- Embed flexibility
- Embrace facilitation
- Monitor and evaluate for sustainability
I’ve worked for a few non-profits in Nigeria and the one defining factor of whether or not we could carry out a project was funding. How much funding we received determined how much of an impact we could make, whether it was related to hunger, nutrition, etc. We spent a large part of our time constantly working on raising funds for a particular project; and once that was done, it was back to raising more for the next project.
This makes it difficult to make any lasting impact. Whatever impact was made was measured by how many people were reached or how many people were fed or how many students were granted scholarships, etc. The numbers defined how successful the project was and that is definitely not the best measure of impact, now is it? This is why a new approach is necessary; one that allows for more local and country-level ownership and involvement, and less of the donor-centric approach.
The principles of the framework promote the engagement of local systems and communities, because in spite of all the numerous parties involved in global development, at the core, they should be focused on the local community. For example, the first principle states that we must “recognize that there is always a system.” Every local community and country is different and has its own unique challenges. It is important to understand the dynamics of each community, how that system works, and to keep them in mind when creating solutions.
Development is not going to be fully achieved through donor countries trying to solve the problems by way of intervention. There has to be a behavioral change as well within those local communities, and that cannot happen if they are only being told what and what not to do. They need to be allowed to take ownership and responsibility for their individual country’s development and be part of the solution. They understand the challenges more than outsiders do and know better how to address them. They need to be encouraged and empowered to make the difference they desire to see in their communities. For those already making an impact, they should be commended for whatever is working within the local communities and collaborated with to provide alternatives or complementary solutions.
A good example of a solution that allowed local ownership and participation is Plan USA’s WASH (Water Sanitation & Hygiene) project. It has been sustainable in various countries as the program focuses on community empowerment and promoting a behavior change among rural families and villages. It is part of their approach that children, their families, and their communities participate in all stages of the project cycle. For example, the infrastructure projects are co-financed by providing a minimum subsidy of non-local and the remaining costs are funded by individual households expect in situations of extreme poverty. They also partner with local governments and organizations to build the capacity of villagers to operate and maintain the water and sanitation services provided. This way, the communities are more invested in the sustainability of the project. One way they promote behavioral change is through the Child-to-Child approach where they train “child monitors” in personal hygiene, sanitation and leadership; and have those children pass on the knowledge to their peers.
Of course, this is easier said than done. There are a few concerns, such as countries not being cooperative either as a result of culture or religion; for example with countries that do not support the education of women; or countries with various ethnic groups at war with each other. Another concern is corruption and funds not being put to its intended use etc. Again, USAID addresses that in the framework, holistically engaging the local system, tapping into the local knowledge and ensuring accountability are some ways to deal with those concerns.
While the shift in paradigm will not happen overnight, it is great to finally realize the need for a change in our approach to sustainable development. Hopefully, many will follow this framework.