Fighting global poverty with locally led strategies

See below for a guest blog from Matthew Pickard, Save the Children’s Malawi Country Director. This is the fifth post in our field feedback series and the second in Save’s “Aid Reform Stories from the Field” series. Click here to read a post from Save the Children in Guatemala, Women Thrive in Ghana, Oxfam America in Uganda, and Management Sciences for Health in Bolivia.


Lilongwe, Malawi

In 2008 Malita Chimwemwe was six years old living in the remote village of Mayaka. Her family was hit by chronic poverty and HIV/AIDs. Malita was in first grade at the local primary school but was speech-impaired. She was lucky; her village was part of Save the Children’s early childhood development (ECD) sponsorship program and through this program, Malita attended a community-based center where she was given speech training. Government-supported community health workers provided Malita’s family with medical assistance.

In Malawi, needs such as Malita’s are widespread. One child in eight dies before reaching five years due to poor health or nutrition. Most Malawian mothers have to carry their children on their backs for long distances to seek health care. Free primary education is offered in Malawi but face declining standards and high drop-out rates. Malawi’s government needs and welcomes donor support, but U.S. government-funded programs, including those aimed at reducing poverty, have not always aligned with Malawi’s needs at the community level.

Requirements set in Washington—such as congressional earmarks and global targets—have at times constrained the ability of the U.S. government, the national government, and partners in country to address Malawi’s community health and education needs. Over 80 percent of U.S. foreign assistance funds are directed to specific programs before they hit the country level. Pre-determined funding allocations often undermine the ability of the U.S. government and partners to provide assistance when, where, and how it is most needed.

Save the Children Malawi has been involved in a new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative that is trying to change this and better connect U.S. foreign aid decisions to local needs and priorities. As part of its “Forward Initiative,” USAID is creating a five-year Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) in Malawi to increase country-driven programming. Working closely with host country governments and citizens, civil society organizations, other donors, and U.S. government agencies, CDCSs are being developed at the majority of USAID’s country and regional missions worldwide. A goal of the CDCS process is to actively take into account the rights and interests of the country’s citizens. In Malawi, this means a greater sensitivity to the development needs of citizens at the community level, positively impacting more vulnerable children like Malita. Seventeen CDCSs have been approved so far, with a total of 73 expected to be completed by the end of 2013.

Community consultation is not new to USAID, but what’s different about the CDCS process in Malawi has been the depth and reach of these consultations. For example, earlier this year, USAID partnered with the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College to convene citizen groups across the country at the national, district, and village level in order to capture the voices of a wide range of people. This process is also expected to inform the government of Malawi’s own programs, policies, and services leading to better country-driven development over the long-term.

The CDCS process in Malawi is still underway. If the initiative moves ahead as planned, and the people’s voices are listened to, U.S. development budgets and resource allocations in Malawi will be driven more by localized strategies and plans developed by Malawi’s citizens than by a top-down approach out of Washington. This is not just a matter of principle, but of impact. When local communities and governments have a sense of ownership over development, they invest their own energy and resources to make it successful.

For the CDCS process to accomplish its purpose, CDCS consultations should be broad and deep in all countries and involve communities, government, and other development stakeholders. USAID missions in the other countries must create opportunities for genuine engagement at the community level and potential for influencing national government priorities—as in Malawi.

Aligning the U.S. government’s poverty reduction and community development efforts with the needs and priorities of Malawi’s citizens will lead to better futures for not only thousands of children like Malita, but for the nation as a whole.

In 2008 a Malawi government official said, “If each country was given a chance to really prioritize what it wants, then we could make a difference in poverty”. With this new U.S. government strategic planning and budgeting approach, Malita Chimwemwe and other citizens in Malawi may have a greater voice in their fight against poverty. Today, as Malita moves to grade four, she can look at her future with more hope and confidence that her voice and that of her community will be heard.

Photo credit: MacPherson Mdalla


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