Few Americans would disagree that the aim of US foreign assistance must be to help people help themselves. Whether the objective is to aid farmers in increasing their crop production, to strengthen locally-led efforts to fight corruption and protect human rights, or to help communities rebuild after a natural disaster, assistance should empower and respond to local people and their needs. The most effective aid programs support leaders in developing countries 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 into the existing capacity and potential of developing countries to solve their own challenges. This approach is unnecessarily costly, inflexible, and unsustainable; it duplicates efforts, reduces accountability for results, and drains talent from developing country institutions. Oxfam believes donors should provide aid in ways that strengthen the relationship between effective governments and active citizens. Oxfam advocates for reforms that let countries know what donors are doing (transparency), support countries’ own efforts to manage development (capacity), and better respond to country priorities (ownership).
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 recently passed Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2015, which will help make US aid more transparent and accountable; 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 country ownership, transparency, and support for local actors:
- The Power of Ownership: Transforming US foreign assistance
- To fight corruption, localize aid
- Transparency is more than dollars and cents
- Tracing US development flows: A study of the traceability of US aid to Ghana
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 2015—will help open the books on US foreign aid.
- Continuing to support US aid policy reforms such as USAID Forward, Feed 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
- At the heart of the USAID Forward reform agenda – started under the Obama administration – was the acknowledgment that local people and institutions must play the leading role in transforming their countries. Since USAID Forward began in 2010, the agency has tripled the amount of direct support to effective local institutions in host countries.[i] According to USAID:
“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.”
- The US government’s first-ever Global Development Policy (PPD6), issued in 2010, 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.
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. This has led to a growing culture of learning at USAID, which will help to ensure aid programs are data-driven and results-focused.
Ensuring transparency of US foreign assistance
- In 2010, the US unveiled a public website, the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, which provides a view of US aid spending and results across agencies and countries.
- Bipartisan efforts in both houses of Congress have required more transparency from US aid agencies via legislation.
- Since joining the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in 2011, US rankings in the Aid Transparency Index rose steadily at first, but many agencies have hit a plateau of progress in recent years. Of all the US agencies that provide foreign assistance, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has stood out, ranking number two globally in 2015 and 2016.
Note: Oxfam does not take US federal funds, but we do support effective development programs.