When President Obama addressed the Parliament of Ghana in the summer of 2009, he said the United States “must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.” Yet too often when the US engages Africans, it presumes that it has the solutions to African challenges. And even when the US seeks to act as a partner, its outdated and supply-driven system for delivering development assistance often prevents it from doing so.
Oxfam has been seeking the perspectives of Africans in government and civil society, as well as US government and NGO professionals to understand how US aid could better help Africans fight poverty. Among the challenges Oxfam has heard:
- In Rwanda, a PEPFAR focus country, government officials cannot track how the US is supporting HIV/AIDS.
- In Ethiopia, health professionals note that 30 to 40 percent of aid for capacity building on HIV/AIDS stays with US organizations providing technical assistance.
- In Kenya, the US uses its own organizations to manage an indoor residual spraying program for malaria instead of working with the government. According to a health official, “You make it harder for [Kenyans] to do it for [ourselves] the next time. And with malaria control, annual spraying isn’t the only thing you do—it’s about monitoring as well.”
- In Liberia, government officials note how contractors are responsive to their contracting arrangement with USAID or other US agencies, not to what governments necessarily need. “Contractors have a huge incentive to deliver today, rather than building up systems for tomorrow—that’s what they’re going to be evaluated on.”
- In Kenya, an official in the Ministry of Health noted that PEPFAR draws qualified staff away from the government by paying them three times as much as the typical government salary.
US development policy needs to be reformed to support the efforts of active citizens and effective governments to overcome their own development challenges. This is known as “country ownership”—the idea that poor countries and their people need to lead their own development. As Secretary Clinton has said, "In Africa and elsewhere, we seek more agile, effective, and creative partnerships. We will focus on country-driven solutions that give responsible governments more information, capacity, and control as they tailor strategies to meet their needs." So how can the US better transfer information, capacity and control to recipients?
Be more transparent and predictable. At a minimum, the US should publish comprehensive, accessible, comparable, and timely information that is useful to recipient governments, civil society, and US taxpayers. Ideally, the US should provide countries with information about its future plans on a three-to-five-year rolling basis.
Change the current contracting model, and use local systems instead. The US should make more of an effort to work directly with African governments and civil society organizations and turn to local or regional experts when possible. African countries need to strengthen systems like public financial management (PFM), procurement, statistics, audits, and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) if they are going to effectively lead their own development. The US should mandate use of these systems wherever possible, and support their improvement, rather than working around them.
Do country-based planning, not Washington-based planning. USAID missions need to be empowered to design their agendas in response to the needs and priorities of African governments and citizens. Plans should then be protected from inconsistent earmarks and presidential initiatives.
Change focus to outcomes rather than outputs. The affect money has on the ground is more important than bean counting. The US should permit more flexibility over how aid dollars are spent; presuming recipients can achieve measurable results. In some cases, this will even mean handing over aid dollars directly to a responsible African government's treasury to be spent on development projects of their choosing.
Imagine how these changes could support African efforts to fight poverty: In Rwanda, the Ministry of Health would be able to better plan and coordinate other investments in HIV/AIDS to complement PEPFAR; Ethiopian NGOs would have access to more resources to build up their own capacity to respond to public needs; Liberia’s Ministry of Finance could make better projections for government expenditures in the coming years; and Kenyan health officials would be better able to retain qualified professionals and better manage their own efforts against malaria.
In Accra, President Obama correctly framed the challenge for the US; to shift our engagement with Africa from patronage to partnership. To do so effectively requires reform of US government global development policy and practice so it can support true ownership of the fight against poverty by effective African governments and active citizens.
Gregory Adams is the Director of Oxfam America's Aid Reform Initiative.
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