Call for USAID staff increase at odds with goal to make aid more 'local'

Call for USAID staff increase at odds with goal to make aid more 'local'
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In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha PowerSamantha PowerHow Trump broke the system that offers protection to Afghan allies Aid airlift underway to earthquake-striken Haiti With Haiti in chaos, we must rewrite the script on disaster aid MORE argued for relying on “local organizations” to develop “tailored solutions” to address challenges in the developing world. Power’s comments align with a growing “localization agenda” designed to correct for credibility issues and other obstacles in administering foreign aid.

But her call, during the same hearing, for large increases in USAID staff size is utterly dissonant with the spirit of localization. 

A new study released last week by Foreign Policy Analytics, in partnership with my organization’s global network of independent local think tanks, reveals that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the local level have the greatest impact when their staff sizes grow — and when donors show more humility in allowing them to manage their own visions for change.

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In short, enduring development is just not an outsider’s game. While indigenous organizations are starting to get the attention and respect they deserve, foreign donor agencies must scale back their own outsized roles in determining and driving local priorities. 

To be sure, in order to effectively combat developing countries’ most pressing post-pandemic challenges, including loss of economic opportunities and declining democratic norms, the institutions of liberal democracy desperately need strengthening the world over. Freedom House has reported declining liberal norms globally for 14 consecutive years, and according to Human Rights Watch, at least 83 countries have seen the pandemic used as an excuse to limit fundamental rights such as the freedoms of expression, assembly and the press.

Local think-tank NGOs are focused on those goals. Based on Foreign Policy Analytics’ surveys and interviews with 322 local think tank leaders in 80 countries, 56 percent have significant concerns about declining democratic norms in their countries. That number rises to 74 percent in countries with low levels of economic freedom. Fifty percent also said poverty is a serious concern; in countries with low levels of economic freedom, that proportion rose to nine out of 10. 

Developed nations have a role to play in responding to the global crises the pandemic has exacerbated. Those roles, though, are changing fast, and leaders like Power can help a major institution such as USAID keep pace. As local voices rise to the occasion, the heavy hand of foreign intervention must be restrained. 

Rebalancing the aid equation is the world’s best chance at restoring faith in liberal democracy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the failure of the West to remake the world in its own image has been described by political scientists Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes as not a rejection of liberal democracy per se, but a rejection of the misguided assumption that rich countries know best how poor countries should pursue development.

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To her credit, Power is not oblivious to the innumerable local complexities that so often frustrate outsiders’ best-laid plans. In her 2019 memoir, tellingly titled “The Education of an Idealist,” she acknowledges the very real limits foreigners face when working in cultures that are not their own.

The value of local knowledge is so much richer and deeper than simply speaking the language or understanding religious traditions — two things a studious outsider can learn. Enduring institutional change, by contrast, relies on the real-time expressions of knowledge and preferences among those whom institutions intend to govern.

Liberal democracy, defined by its ideals rather than by any specific, imperfect example of it, is the best governance system for giving voice to that knowledge and accounting for it in the process of institutional change. Restoring liberal democracy is our most reliable lever for improving standards of living throughout the world. But everywhere liberal democracy has a chance at finding its footing, it must be chosen by those who stand to benefit most. Those choices cannot be made freely if outsiders continue to tread heavily on development practice on the ground. 

Increasing USAID staff would not be a signal that stepping lightly is top of the aid agenda.

Matt Warner is co-author of the forthcoming book “Development with Dignity: Democracy, Foreign Aid, and Localization” (Routledge, 2021) and president of Atlas Network, a nonprofit committed to supporting the organizational capacity of local NGO think tanks in more than 90 countries.