Country Ownership Metrics: An Underdeveloped Field in Development

The annual funding of U.S. bilateral economic assistance is generally a lengthy process, from the President’s request at the beginning of the year to Congressional action over the summer and early fall.  These budget resources are precious and scarce, which is why Congress spends considerable time reviewing the request.  According to the State Department, the FY 2015 budget estimate for bilateral economic assistance was about $21 billion; for FY 2016, the President is requesting $21.7 billion. At whatever the final level of funding that the President and Congress can agree upon, the U.S. needs to use these resources to best effect in promoting good governance and economic growth, and reducing human suffering.

A key driver of the effective and sustained use of U.S. bilateral economic resources is country ownership.   While this statement is no longer controversial, there remains some disagreement about how best to define country ownership. A 2011 Interaction  publication on Country Ownership notes that: “…Although practitioners and researchers have confirmed that broad-based participation is critical to sustainability, there is a wide range of interpretations of the meaning of the term ‘country ownership.’” This lack of consensus about what country ownership means makes it challenging for donors to align around how to support it.

From our experience, we’ve seen that what gets measured gets done. This is why MFAN’s Country Ownership Working Group asked the question: what do we know about and what do we want to see in terms of metrics for implementing country ownership?  Our efforts to identify metrics used the country ownership framework laid out in MFAN’s 2014 policy paper, The Way Forward: ownership of the priorities and resources for, and implementation of, development.  The result of these efforts was captured recently in a new MFAN paper, Metrics for Implementing Country Ownership. Below are a few highlights from this effort and the paper:

  • What to measure: outcomes or process? The answer may seem obvious, but think again.  For example, at Plan International, the ultimate measure of local ownership is when local authorities or the private sector or some combination fund an initiative that had been previously funded by Plan.  When this happens, Plan can step aside as a donor and exit a community.  But this takes a long time to nurture (10-15 years).  Plan can afford to be patient. Most donor funding cycles (dependent in some way on political cycles) are much shorter.  Due to this shorter cycle, it is no surprise that most measures look at process, something that can be watched immediately.
  • The role of proxy measures. Whether we are talking about outcomes or process, most of the things we want to measure (g., was the consultation process inclusive?) are really hard to observe directly.  Polling is an option, but it is expensive and the results can be ambiguous or even contradictory.  Perhaps over time mobile technology may make it more feasible – at least on key instances and purposes – and a number of organizations, including the World Bank, are testing this.
  • The importance of definition. Ownership of priorities is difficult to define, which therefore makes it difficult to measure. Every S. agency we spoke to in the process of building and refining the paper agreed that the diversity of views and the degree of inclusion in the process of designing or evaluating initiatives matters greatly for sustainability.  But how to measure the degree of consultation and inclusion in priority setting? If the most marginalized voices matter the most, how is this captured systematically in a measure?
  • Even measures that are seemingly easily quantifiable require a lot more refinement. Ownership of implementation has been the main focus of USAID Forward ’s procurement reform effort, specifically its target of having 30% all USAID acquisitions and procurements go through “local” organizations.  But one can oversimplify.  The recent Save the Children report (Tracking USAID’s Efforts on the Local Solutions Initiative) makes a number of excellent recommendations to refine this measure by including indicators like the value and percentage of project funds contributed by local institution and number of local institutions implementing sub-grants or sub-contracts. These additional measures could help ensure that USAID is better tracking the objective it is trying to promote.   But these are not always easy measures to impose, for example, in the context of the government’s existing data gathering and management systems.

We look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Administration and the community on the metrics we put forward in our paper, and on what else we should be considering.

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This is a guest post from former MFAN Country Ownership Working Group Co-Chairs Rodney Bent and Tessie San Martin.

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