Oxfam: US Government needs to be bolder in efforts to fight poverty

By jlee

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WASHINGTON, DC (December 13, 2011) — International relief and development organization Oxfam America cautioned that America’s effectiveness to fight poverty around the world may be hampered by focusing too much on accounting and not enough on building long-term partnerships in country.

In a new report, “The politics of partnership: How donors manage risk while letting recipients lead their own development” released today as part of Oxfam America’s Ownership in Practice series, Oxfam examines the real challenges donors confront in building trust and support for local leaders as well as concrete ways the US can be a better partner and get the most out of foreign assistance.

“Real progress in fighting poverty requires bold, innovative approaches,” said Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam America.  “We can’t make real progress against poverty doing the same things we’ve always done.  And yet Congress is often reluctant to let development professionals take on the risk of innovating new approaches.  USAID is working to put more trust in poor people and governments; Congress needs to put trust in USAID’s new approach.”

When donors try to circumvent national governments and impose their own vision, it often leads to weak results. For example, following Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 the international community encouraged the creation of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission to coordinate reconstruction because of Haiti’s long history of both corruption and capacity constraints. Although the commission was established by the Haitian parliament, it is not subject to government audits. There are also questions about whether the commission has improved coordination of aid or merely added to the multiplicity of development actors in the country.

“Instead of trying to avoid risk, donors should accept and manage the risks associated with building more-effective partnerships,” said Adams. “Meaningful partnerships are the only way for donors like the US to get the most out of foreign assistance dollars, especially over the long run.”

Highlighting research from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Malawi, and Tanzania, Oxfam concludes that that the only way to yield real and lasting development successes is when the US and other donors trust and support local leaders and take concrete steps to manage risk across different contexts.

Said Ghanaian member of parliament Albert Kan-Dapaah, “In Ghana, just like in the US, we rely on independent media and citizen ‘watchdogs’ to keep those of us in government honest. US support to Ghana should help us strengthen that relationship of accountability and transparency, which is ultimately the only way to build a better and safer future for Ghanaians. The US government has not always pursued genuine partnerships with countries like Ghana, but this is slowly starting to change through Partnership for Growth and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.”

The report identifies nine steps that the US can take to pursue partnership and manage risk, instead of seeking to avoid it:

• How to deal with the risk of corruption in poor countries:
1. Identify and support promising leaders, agencies, and public efforts inside and outside government that are seeking to change things for the better.
2. Work to support political and civil rights that let citizens hold their governments accountable.
3. Pair investments in government capacity with investments in civil society “watchdogs.”
• How to deal with the risk that poor countries lack capacity:
4. Commit to support promising in-country partners for longer periods of time.
5. Make direct, long-term financial and technical investments in the success of local institutions.
• How to deal with the risk that poor people will make failed investments:
6. Partner to strengthen existing local rules and systems and resist setting up burdensome and duplicative rules and systems.
7. Fund the priorities that recipients have identified.
8. Demand performance.
9. Encourage and support transparency.

“As new donors emerge, the US risks losing influence if that influence is strictly based on accounting every dollar, rather than the overall results,” said Adams.  “Poor people need to shape how aid is invested to deliver the ‘right’ results. Including recipients in defining and managing aid offers new opportunities for the US in building long-term effective partnerships. However, it is up to the administration, Congress and taxpayers alike to support such efforts, beyond any partisan line, so the US can step up during this closing window of opportunity on the world stage.”