Administrator Samantha Power at a Roundtable Event on Doing Aid Better: Actions to Support Local Leadership in Policy, Funding, and Practice

Speeches Shim

Monday, September 19, 2022

REMARKS

WATCH HERE

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much for those powerful ideas. Let me just say at the outset that I think the inextricable link that you have drawn between resources, and policy, and legal frameworks, that is too often missed or neglected – certainly it’s it’s something that I think the Biden Administration is very alert to. And it’s just very important that everywhere around the world that it is lived through engagements with host governments – which I’m sure of course, is not always the case. 

I want to thank all the leaders who are participating here today, and I feel humbled to be among you and really eager to learn. Thanks to Peace Direct for hosting this discussion. It is great to be back at the International Peace Institute. I’m thinking about this room and all the Security Council informal meetings we had where nothing was achieved. So this is going to be much more productive, I suspect. 

For those of you who live and are based in New York, I’m sorry for your commute. This is the first in several years where people had forgotten how much they loved the UN General Assembly in New York City, I suspect. 

So again, I’m looking forward to listening, but did want to share a little bit of my experience since coming to USAID, more than a year and a half ago. So upon arriving and of course, always being a champion of more space for civil society, or non negotiable space for civil society, and being very concerned by the democratic backsliding and the creativity of repressive regimes using financial and regulatory and other tools.

Nonetheless, running a large aid agency is a different piece of business. From the very earliest days, I heard from civil society groups like NEAR, Civicus, current and former USAID leadership and staff, particularly, and I want to stress this, USAID’s local staff. More than 70 percent of our teams around the world are nationals of the countries in which we work – they are the engineers, the economists, the public health professionals. Many of them have worked with USAID for a decade or two and our Foreign Service National empowerment agenda is inextricably linked to our localization agenda, which I’ll come to. Talking with other governments, several which are represented here, who have robust foreign assistance programs, philanthropic funders, and of course, our implementing partners, and learning. But one of the things I just heard across the board consistently from all, irrespective of where they sat, is that there is a better way to do foreign assistance or foreign resourcing – I like that. 

There is a model of resourcing development that tilts the balance of power away from funders, toward the communities in which we work. A model that prizes the knowledge of people in those communities, respects their expertise, and engages them as partners rather than as beneficiaries. A model that elevates the voices of marginalized populations that are too often ignored or excluded. 

That model is one we call locally-led inclusive development – and core to it is creating the space for those with ideas, leadership, and credibility to drive change in their own communities. 

Back in November, after this wide consultation, I unveiled two targets at USAID designed to propel our Agency in a more inclusive direction. 

First, by 2025, USAID will provide at least a quarter of all our program funds directly to local partners. I know that does not seem like a very large number, but it is a very large leap for USAID. Ramping up the percentage of funds that go to development partners from countries where we work has long been an ambition, as many of you know, of previous USAID Administrators, and in all honesty, as you also know, it has been a stubborn target to move in real life. But we are taking what I think are creative new steps to get there and I’d love to hear about other things you think we should be doing. 

Last November, we unveiled our Centroamérica Local Initiative, which sets aside $300 million over five years specifically to invest in organizations based in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to generate locally led progress in the region. We exceeded our targets for awards to local partners during the first year of this initiative. And in just one recent example, last week, our Mission in Honduras launched a new $4 million activity with a Honduran civil society organization aimed at rooting out corruption – which of course is crucial work in the region, and in so many parts of the world.

Based on what we’ve learned in Central America, today I am announcing a new, similar regional approach in Sub-Saharan Africa – the Africa Localization Initiative. Working together with our partners in Congress, we intend to set aside funding exclusively to work with local organizations across the continent, and elevate their leadership as we work to achieve shared goals. We’ll be announcing more details about this Initiative in future months, but we’re excited about the new partnerships it will generate. 

While directly funding community-based actors is a critical aspect of shifting ownership, it doesn’t fully capture what it means to shift power. We need to break down barriers so that local communities can exercise their own leadership. 

That’s the spirit behind the second goal I announced last November – that at least half of all of our programs will create space for local communities to determine their own development priorities, manage the design and implementation of the work, or measure its results. 

This isn’t going to happen on its own. We need to engage with a much larger group of partners than ever before, from small businesses and entrepreneurs to marginalized and underrepresented communities, and we need to listen to their expertise.

Putting this into practice could be as simple as translating USAID solicitations into local languages, so more organizations can apply. Or it can be as complex as infusing local customs and expertise into our programs – for instance, our partners in Guatemala’s Western Highlands are using traditional Mayan healing practices and local traditions of emotional recovery to help survivors recover from sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence.  

To support progress toward both of our targets, we’re building on past efforts and making a series of policy, organizational, and behavioral changes that should make USAID more accessible and responsive to new partners and local communities. 

One of the most important steps we can take is reconsidering our posture toward risk. As USAID has consistently demonstrated, we take seriously our responsibility to the American people as good stewards of taxpayer dollars, but working with new players, by definition, comes with new risks. 

To be frank, there is a risk in any kind of partnership. And working with established partners who know the ins-and-outs of USAID risks missing out on opportunities where we could be supporting and elevating the local changemakers who are best positioned to advance progress in their communities.

A low appetite for risk, as traditionally understood, can stifle new ways of working. So we revised our agency-wide risk appetite statement to reflect a broader conception of risk, clarifying that we do in fact have a high appetite for taking smart and disciplined risks in working with local partners, which we know will lead to more equitable and sustainable development outcomes over time. 

We also have to be more accessible to local partners. Contending with jargon-filled paperwork and navigating a slew of bureaucratic processes is not realistic for smaller organizations with fewer resources and small staffs. Often, it’s hard for local organizations to even know where to begin. 

So, we’ve developed tools to make it easier to work with USAID. Last November, we launched a website, very creatively named, called WorkWithUSAID. It is our one-stop shop for clear and easy to access information about funding and partnership opportunities. Since its launch last year, almost 3,000 organizations have registered in WorkWithUSAID’s Partner Directory – more than half of them local partners, a majority of whom we have never worked with before. Feedback on WorkWithUSAID.org is welcome, by the way.

Getting folks to the front door is one thing, but we’re also working to streamline our processes where possible, including allowing applicants for funding to submit brief concept notes – including in languages other than English, radical though that sounds – rather than requiring full blown applications up front. And for full applications, we’re exploring options to translate local language submissions into English. 

We’re also encouraging the use of mechanisms that pay for results, allowing organizations to focus less on our requirements and more on development outcomes. 

And next month, we will release a new first-of-its-kind Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, which lays out a shared vision for how we can support the goals and priorities of locally-based partners, building on their existing strengths. 

While I’m hopeful about the ways these reforms will change our Agency and our relationships with our local partners, we are just one partner, and we are really just at the start of this multi-year process. To make a measurable dent in reforming the development community for the better, it will require staying power on our part and tangible actions by everyone, not just in this room or watching on the livestream, but in this field. We will continue to make these reforms and to work towards our targets, but we really hope that the entire development community continues to take steps alongside us so we can learn together – whether that’s donors changing the way we do business or local partners helping to hold us to account. 

Like I said, though, I’m here today to listen. So I’m excited to hear your perspectives, and understand the ways in which we can all embrace this new model of locally-led, inclusive development. 

Thank you so much.

International Peace Institute, New York, NY

Last updated: September 30, 2022

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