USAID and PEPFAR: Institutionalizing Local Ownership for Sustainability

See below for a guest post from Justin Fugle, Senior Advisor for Policy and Program Outreach for Plan International USA. This piece originally appeared on Plan’s blog on March 9.

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Although the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Local Solutions is often associated with recently-departed Administrator Raj Shah, a panel discussion at Plan International USA’s office in Washington DC on March 3 made it clear that localization has deeper roots in the Agency and will continue. This is good news for aid effectiveness and for USAID itself, for Local Solutions is critical to USAID’s renewed influence in the wider development community.

As Counselor to the Agency, Susan Reichle acknowledged as much when she said, “For USAID to be the lead development agency, we need to put partnering locally front and center.”

Within the U.S. government, both the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR) and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) continue to break new ground on local ownership for sustainability. In the wider world, the same principles have been embraced and implemented by the Department for International Development (DFID), other European aid agencies, and in the consensus documents from Paris, Accra, and Busan. Increasingly, partner country governments are insisting that donors align with local priorities, and the in-country USAID Missions hear them. Local ownership is a central assumption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well. With all this in mind, the institutionalization of Local Solutions must be seen as a top USAID priority.

If Plan’s experience is any guide, institutionalizing local ownership requires a significant change in business practices and a radical shift in mindset. As donors and INGOs, we have to be willing to transfer our power to capable local actors and to be driven by their agendas. 

By doing so, we greatly increase the chances that the work will be scaled-up and sustained. Plan’s ex-post evaluations have found that when programs are jointly designed, implemented, and financed by Plan and local actors, the chance of sustainability increases significantly. During the panel, PEPFAR’s Director of Sustainability and Development Dr. Janis Timberlake agreed. 

“Our goal is programs that are locally managed, funded and implemented,” she said.

USAID Local Solutions Coordinator Liz Warfield further outlined the principles at work.

“Local Solutions is not just about [Implementation and Procurement Reform] it is using, strengthening, and partnering with local actors to achieve sustainable impact…. To fulfill USAID’s Mission of ending extreme poverty, we need to work with existing systems and not around them or against them…. In fragile states, they may need capacity development first, but even in fragile states, there are systems and we should use them…. [T]here is a clear role for international partners, but that is moving from a direct service delivery mentality to the role of broker and facilitator,” she said.

Warfield outlined a number of steps underway and planned within USAID to institutionalize this major shift. Among them is the revision of the ADS 200 Series, which is the mandatory and best practice guidance to the Missions on planning, programming, evaluation, and other key topics that significantly influence the final shape of USAID’s funding and management decisions. Other steps include staff training, staff incentives, and collecting evidence of the lasting impact of local ownership.

This last aspect is essential if Local Solutions is to survive into the next administration and beyond. Evidence is critical to support the assertions that local ownership truly increases sustainability, providing lasting benefits to the population. In that sense, one of the most significant announcements during the panel at Plan was Warfield’s explanation that USAID will collect evidence of the results of Local Solutions through mid-term evaluations, meta-evaluations, and ex-post evaluations three to five years after close-out.

As Warfield said, “The idea of ex-post evaluations will influence the way we do programming.” Rather than being satisfied with positive results at close out, USAID will move towards measuring success through sustainability. Quick but rootless gains will be exposed and practices that strengthen local systems will be favored. The axiom that what gets measured gets done mandates that if sustainability is the goal, then ex-post evaluations must join baselines, mid-terms, and finals as a standard part of USAID and PEPFAR’s program designs.

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