Opinion

How to make US foreign aid work

Give recipients a say in where the money goes.

By

President Obama is ushering in a "new era of responsibility." And at this time of economic downturn it's a good thing. Every facet of the government's business, including how US tax dollars are invested in the fight against global poverty, must be treated with a renewed sense of responsibility.

The call to responsibility is a staple of American values, so why shouldn't it underscore the delivery of US development assistance? A clear majority of opinion leaders polled in a recent survey believe that foreign assistance and supporting development in poor countries should be used as a more important tool for US foreign policy in the Obama administration. As we pick up that duty, US taxpayer dollars have to be spent with a clear sense of purpose and accountability.

One way to do that is to make sure that in this conversation we include an important ally in the fight for accountability – the recipients of US foreign assistance. Just as American taxpayers are concerned about how their money is spent, recipients of help in the form of money abroad want to know that they are getting the most value from each dollar spent. They can help us spend wisely.

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Consider Honduras, which received a $215 million grant from the US government through the Millennium Challenge Corporation to fight poverty and stimulate economic growth.

Honduras is using the bulk of this funding to build roads to give farmers better access to markets and to let poor families reach schools and health clinics. To sustain this vital investment for the long-term benefit of its citizens, the country added its own funds for road maintenance.

It makes most sense to invest US development dollars in a way that lets recipients themselves champion home-grown solutions to their needs and hold their governments accountable for the results.

The international development community calls such country responsibility "country ownership," a concept experts agree makes development aid more effective. This sometimes means that the best way to get more accountability for taxpayers is to shift control to the people on the ground, where development actually happens, and away from Washington.

This fundamental realization is already changing how development aid is delivered and providing powerful lessons for defining its future. Country-led development makes sense as an American approach to assistance – one predicated on responsibility, self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and a firm belief in investments as a hand up, not a hand out.

Washington is taking due note and discussing ways toward a coherent development assistance strategy that recognizes the significance of country ownership in bringing about sustainable change in the lives of the world's poor.

America should stand firmly behind a common sense approach to aid effectiveness that incorporates country ownership, because poor countries know their development challenges best and local solutions are superior to the ones devised thousands of miles away.

Striking a balance between helping poor people in developing countries and making US aid effective demands one thing: accountability. For aid to work well, power and responsibility need to rest not only with those providing it but also receiving it. What more American way is there to carry out our global responsibilities?

At a time when every dollar counts, the moment has come to heed the call to shared responsibility and instill the core value of country ownership in how US development assistance is delivered.

This is smart for America, smart for our partners, and smart for our drive toward greater opportunity and prosperity around the world.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of the international relief and development agency Oxfam America and a member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. He is a leader in the movement to reform and modernize foreign assistance. Rodney Bent is the acting chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

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