The Power of Ownership: Transforming US Foreign Assistance

Authored by Save the Children and Oxfam America

“We need to get serious about what we mean when we talk about country ownership of development strategies. Let’s be clear. Too often, donors’ decisions are driven more by our own political interests or our policy preferences or development orthodoxies than by our partners’ needs. But now our partners have access to evidence-based analysis and best practices, so they can better decide what will work for them. We have to be willing to follow their lead.”

— Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, Busan South Korea1

The world has made incredible progress in the fight to end extreme poverty. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by more than half in the last 25 years. Continuing this legacy of development success requires more -- and better -- partnership and cooperation with countries receiving US foreign assistance.

When governments, and their citizens, set US development priorities and participate in implementing and financing them, it leads to more accountability and lasting change. This approach to development cooperation, enshrined in the concept of country ownership, upholds the rights of citizens in partner countries to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Countries that lead their own development not only contribute to creating a more democratic and stable world, but they become better trading partners, more reliable allies, and safer bets for investment.

A Strong Bipartisan Track Record with Much Left to Do

For more than a decade, successive US Presidents have advanced local ownership of US assistance, committing to three successive international agreements that establish country ownership as a core principle of effective development.

The Bush administration established the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which requires that national governments play a central role in setting development priorities in consultation with civil society. The Obama administration, issued the first-ever Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, declaring ownership a prerequisite for achieving development results. In keeping with this directive, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) increased its direct investment in partner governments, local organizations and the private sector and it has revised its programming guidance to better support country ownership.

These efforts are encouraging, but more can be done. While USAID and MCC, two of the biggest providers of US foreign assistance, have made significant progress, ownership approaches are not systematically applied to all of their projects. Even within the US agencies committed to ownership, policy has been slow to translate into practice, and there is no systematic way to measure ownership across agencies. Considering this approach is so central to effective development and the eradication of extreme poverty, more progress on ownership should be made by the next administration.

Recommendations for the next Administration

The next administration should scale up successful ownership practices, putting them at the core of how the US does development.

  1. Appoint leaders who will champion country ownership of development.
    Reaffirm the centrality of country ownership to US development assistance by acting within the first 100 days to appoint development agency leaders who are committed to advancing country ownership.

  2. Measure ownership across US development assistance.
    Create common ownership metrics that reflect the engagement and decision-making power of local stakeholders, including marginalized and vulnerable groups. All US agencies that implement foreign assistance should be required to measure progress on country ownership.

  3. Demonstrate progress towards partner countries’ long-term development objectives.
    US assistance should contribute to the achievement of long-term development goals within a country portfolio, beyond the 3-5 year project timeframe. US assistance can support lasting development outcomes if interventions are designed and prioritized with local stakeholders. US development agencies should report against specific, measurable benchmarks that mark their contribution toward these long-term, country-led goals. Ex-post evaluations should be part of standard operating practice to ensure that projects produce lasting results.

  4. Waive earmarks to implement Country Development Cooperation Strategies.
    Allow select countries to implement their Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) by waiving funding earmarks to ensure that USAID Missions have the flexibility to align with local priorities and to give countries greater ownership and decision-making power.

  5. Pilot a new country-level engagement model for USAID.
    Initiate a joint MCC-USAID initiative on country ownership of development – emphasizing the creation of a new country-level engagement model that builds on learning from the MCC compacts and USAID Forward.

Country Ownership in Practice – Time to Scale-Up Success

Oxfam and Save the Children recently completed research analyzing examples of good ownership practice at USAID and MCC. The research explores ownership of priorities, implementation, resources, and overall sustainability of project results. We created an analytical framework called the “Local Engagement Assessment Framework” (LEAF), to systematically measure and evaluate country ownership across sectors, countries, and US development agencies.

The resulting research study, “The Power of Ownership: Transforming US Foreign Assistance,” assesses how early adopters of country-owned development are designing and implementing innovative projects in four countries - Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan and Rwanda. In these select projects, US assistance is empowering local leadership, including community leaders, government officials, and members of civil society, and tapping local expertise to catalyze development based on country contexts. For example:

  • USAID’s Resiliency in Northern Ghana (RING) project provides direct funding to municipalities, simultaneously building the capacity of district assemblies and extending their locally designed nutrition and livelihoods programs to communities, with a specific focus on women.

  • In Indonesia, USAID’s Community Empowerment Against Tuberculosis (CEPAT) project works in support of the Indonesian National Tuberculosis Program. CEPAT empowers local organizations with deep community connections to tackle tuberculosis in a way that targets hard-to-reach community members.

  • Jordan’s MCC compact updated and expanded an existing water system that serves poor communities. The project empowered Jordanians to design and manage the project from start to finish while enhancing the Jordanian government’s accountability to citizens for water service provision.

  • In Rwanda, USAID’s Ubaka Ejo project provided direct funding to a Rwandan nongovernmental organization, African Evangelistic Enterprise (AEE), which has deep roots in local communities. The resulting project, designed and led by AEE, provides vocational training to orphans and other vulnerable young people, and has served to strengthen AEE’s organizational capacity for the future.

Cases like these should inspire the next administration to accelerate progress, expand implementation of country ownership policy reforms, and initiate bold paths forward toward more sustainable development results. To learn more, go to:

1 Keynote at the Opening Session of the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, Remarks, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, November 30, 2011, available at


Download Member Insight

Download FABB 2016

Foreign Assistance Briefing Book:   2016  |  2013  |  2011  |  2008