The Evolution Of U.S. Foreign Assistance

“Country ownership” has become a popular term used in discussions about the future of U.S. foreign assistance. But its definition shifts depending on who you’re talking to. InterAction’s just released policy paper, “Country Ownership: Moving from Rhetoric to Action,” provides a clear and easy to understand definition that all who care about international development should consider using.  

Defined in the paper as “the full and effective participation of a country’s population—including government, civil society and the private sector—in conceptualizing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating development policies, and programs,” country ownership is a partnership approach to development assistance. It empowers and supports countries and their citizens to take responsibility for their own development, using local systems and resources to create new opportunities and change in their communities, while becoming less reliant on foreign aid.   

It’s not just NGOs who believe in country ownership. The Obama administration has become attached to the concept, promoting it in development policies such as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and initiatives such as Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative. However despite this progress, the administration’s attempt to “adopt a model of development based… on partnership, not patronage,” as Hillary Clinton has described, has been inconsistent.

If the administration gives the new paper a read, they will see that current and future development assistance programs can be run more effectively and efficiently. In addition to a clear definition, the paper’s five recommendations outline the core elements of country ownership. These suggestions would go a long way toward ensuring the engagement of all those involved—the Obama administration, Congress, U.S. NGOs and the private sector.   

With nasty political fights over the federal budget likely to continue for the foreseeable future and the economy still sputtering, it behooves the government to show taxpayers that their investment in foreign assistance makes good fiscal sense. This fiscal challenge, coupled with a commitment to give partner countries the support needed to actively participate in the development process, should open the door to an in-depth policy conversation with U.S. NGOs.

U.S. NGOs are experts in applying participatory approaches to development, and depend on local country resources – people, systems and knowledge – to support their program work and the evaluation of its effectiveness. Plus, a multitude of InterAction member organizations are now playing supportive roles to local groups that manage programs formerly run by international NGOs. They have a significant contribution to make to the U.S. government’s understanding and approach to country ownership.

The Obama administration has taken a proactive approach to advancing country ownership and has made good progress, but it should seek effective partners to truly move U.S. development assistance into the 21st century.

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Written by Tawana Jacobs, Associate Director of Public Relations, InterAction