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Making aid work

Community members in Sri Lanka rate NGOs in their response to the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Photo: Atul Loke / Panos for Oxfam America.

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Oxfam believes that aid is not the solution to poverty; people are.

Few Americans would disagree that the aim of US foreign assistance must be to help people help themselves. Whether the objective is to aid local farmers in increasing their crop production, to strengthen locally led efforts to fight corruption and protect human rights, or to support neighbors to rebuild after a natural disaster, assistance should empower and respond to local people and their needs. The most effective aid programs support local leaders as they take action to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.

But too often certain kinds of US foreign aid are slow, bureaucratic, politically driven, and implemented from the top down. And, as a result, US aid is not building local systems that tap the existing capacity and potential of developing countries to solve their own problems. This approach is unnecessarily costly, inflexible, and unsustainable; it duplicates efforts, reduces accountability for results, and drains talent from local institutions. Oxfam believes donors should provide aid in ways that strengthen the compact between effective governments and active citizens. Oxfam advocates for reforms that let countries know what donors are doing (information), support countries’ own efforts to manage development (capacity), and better respond to country priorities (control).

With citizens and governments in the driver’s seat, development finance can be effectively deployed to strengthen local systems and end the injustice of poverty.


Oxfam advocates with decision makers in Congress and the administration to improve the way the US government delivers aid. Oxfam advocates for legislation such as the Foreign Aid and Transparency Act, which will reform US aid; conducts research to determine how US approaches can build on the vast amount of enterprising and creative problem-solving skills that local leaders employ; and amplifies the voices of these leaders in Washington, DC.

The US is the largest donor of official development assistance around the world in terms of absolute dollars. It’s important that these aid dollars be protected and spent in the right ways, especially in ways that end countries’ aid dependency.

Oxfam has published influential reports documenting the need for greater aid transparency and country ownership:

Goals & priorities

Oxfam advocates for changes to US policy and practices that would make poverty-reducing aid a more effective tool for development. Our efforts include the following:

  • Ensuring that US foreign aid is focused on the real goal of helping countries move beyond aid to self-sufficiency: building institutions such as government, local civil society, and private business, rather than working around them, and making greater use of country systems to ensure good governance and local accountability for results.
  • Providing more useful information about US aid: making timely, accurate, and comprehensive data about US assistance available to citizens and taxpayers. New legislation—the Foreign Aid Transparency Act of 2013—would open the books on US foreign aid.
  • Continuing to support US aid policy reforms such as USAID ForwardFeed the Future, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), by protecting the critical funding needed to shift to more streamlined aid practices.

Why does Oxfam aim to strengthen local ownership of aid?

Foreign aid doesn’t “create” development—people and countries develop themselves. No matter how well donors understand development, donor-imposed solutions are often wrong for the context. Even when they’re right, successes aren’t maintained without local buy-in.

At its best, when foreign aid is “owned” by those it aims to help, it can be delivered in ways that strengthen the voice of citizens and the responsiveness of the state. 

Achievements so far

Working with allies both inside and outside of Washington, DC, Oxfam has succeeded in furthering the debate on how to improve US aid, ensuring aid reforms remain on the agenda, and influencing decision makers. Our contributions are evident in the changes we’ve seen in US foreign assistance agencies and mechanisms since our work began.

Building country systems to ensure good governance and local accountability

  • The Obama administration’s “Partnerships for Growth” approach has mapped out a new way to change relationships with developing countries from patronage to partnership, based on the promise of the US government’s first-ever Global Development Policy (PPD6), issued in 2010. The US Global Development Policy offers a clear mandate for country ownership—that is, US foreign aid delivered in ways to help citizens demand that their governments govern well and accountably.
  • At the heart of the USAID Forward flagship reform agenda is the acknowledgment that local people and institutions must play the leading role in transforming their countries. Since USAID Forward began in 2009, the agency has increased the amount of direct support to effective local institutions in host countries by almost 50 percent.1 According to USAID’s progress report:

In order to achieve long-term sustainable development, we have to support the institutions, private sector partners and civil society organizations that serve as engines of growth and progress for their own nations. USAID Forward is helping us to do that through new models for public-private partnerships and increased investment directly to partner governments and local organizations.

Supporting reforms to US aid policy

  • USAID Forward addresses the outdated procurement policies that perpetuate a cycle of aid dependence; the rebuilding of staff technical capacity; the reduction of overhead costs associated with contracting; the need for rigorous program feedback and evaluation; and the role of innovation, science, and technology throughout USAID’s programs.
  • USAID is renewing its emphasis on monitoring, evaluation, and learning, led by a celebrated new policy and the creation of the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning.

Ensuring transparency of US foreign assistance

  1. USAID, USAID Forward Progress Report (2013).
Note: Oxfam does not take US federal funds, but we do support effective development programs.

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