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On Monday the 21st, I went with our Global Health Program Director, Priti, to a panel discussion organized by the Center for Global Development.  It was titled “What is Country Ownership Anyway?” and addressed (you guessed it) issues of country ownership in development projects, what exactly that means, and why it’s vital to the success of foreign assistance.

Country ownership is a bit of an ambiguous term.  As Minister of Health Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia pointed out, it can mean very different things to very different people.  For some, it means that the country is the driving force behind the development project, and is integral in all stages, from planning to implementation and evaluation.  For others, it simply means that country authorities are informed of what aid groups are doing within their borders.  The consensus in the room seemed to lean toward the former option – that for proper country ownership, it is important for the country to have a say in the program design, goal, and implementation.

Minister Ghebreyesus compared it to the driving of a car, and said that the country needs to not only be in the driver’s seat, but also be the one deciding where the country is going, not just chauffeuring the passengers (the aid groups).  The aid groups are welcome to and should in fact warn of dangerous roads and potential roadblocks, but ultimately the driver decides which path to take.  It is, indeed, the locals who probably know the roads best.

After the talk I read a very illuminating article by Laurie Garrett published in Foreign Affairs a few years ago that gave me another perspective on country ownership.  A short section of it is available online, here.  The article deals much more with the importance of comprehensive health systems strengthening (as opposed to separate groups tackling specific health issues) than with country ownership, but it seems to me that the two issues are inextricably related. Read the rest of this entry »

Post by Alex Simon, George Washington University

When Lily first invited me to a discussion on foreign assistance reform on Capitol Hill, I must admit my expectations were low.  Not only had I come to think of government approaches to global development as weakened by their bureaucratic processes and special interests, but looking briefly at the history of attempted foreign aid reform, there hasn’t been a lot of progress.

To my surprise, the meeting, convened by House Foreign Affairs Committee Senior Staffer Diana Ohlbaum last Tuesday, was filled with optimism and a sense that the time to modernize US foreign assistance has finally come.

The topic of discussion:  “Discussion Paper #1: Development Assistance Reforms” released by Chairman Berman’s committee staff on October 6th of this year.  Currently, foreign assistance priorities are driven by Washington, not by the needs of the countries receiving the cash and long-term development success is compromised by annual appropriations and Congressional earmarks.

The paper outlines 10 reforms directed at fixing these bureaucratic barriers and balancing what are often perceived as competing objectives.  According to the paper, the following reforms could

“Provide greater support for country-owned plans while serving U.S. national interests; allow greater input from USAID field missions while advancing policy priorities; offer greater flexibility while demanding greater accountability; respond to areas of greatest need while rewarding good performance and addressing security threats; and achieve a measurable impact that leads to sustained economic growth.”

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Decades of research leave little doubt about the vital role of women in global development. While women often bear poverty’s heaviest burdens, focused investment in that portion of the population has proved a near-surefire way to build healthier, better educated, more prosperous communities. Last month, the Global Resources and Opportunities for Women to Thrive Act (GROWTH Act, S.1425) was introduced in the Senate. This legislation is an exciting opportunity to ensure that US foreign assistance and development efforts adequately (and smartly) invest in the power of women in the developing world.

Though women comprise a disproportionate percentage of the world’s extremely poor, studies have demonstrated that women who are given extra income are more likely than men to invest it in their children, improving the family’s health, lowering child mortality and malnutrition rates, and boosting education rates. Women’s successes in the microfinance industry over the last 30-40 years have been breathtaking as well. The GROWTH Act proposes much wider administrative and financial support for such initiatives, including microenterprise, improved land and property rights for women, more access to formal employment, skills trainings, and focused investments from trade (the latter four components have been widely absent from general microfinance initiatives).

CDTD cooking class

Somali refugees attending a cooking class that will enable them to secure better jobs and earn higher wages

I’ve had the luck to witness the results of such initiatives in Kenya, and am now very much a believer in the power of women in development. I spent several months in early 2008 interning at the Centre for Domestic Training and Development, an organization led by an inspiring Kenyan woman to help other impoverished women thrive. Edith Murogo, the Centre’s founder, is a wife and mother who recognized a problem in her community and began working to solve it, raising money slowly to establish and expand her organization. Today she is one of the most well-known and respected social entrepreneurs in Kenya.

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The world food crisis—more serious than ever, in light of the global economic crisis—has activists in the development community clamoring for solutions. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are now classified as “hungry,” and numbers are expected to rise as flows of foreign aid, government assistance, NGO resources, and remittances dry up or are allocated elsewhere. As Secretary Clinton embarks on a 7-nation tour of Africa next week, one can hope that world hunger and food security will be at the forefront of her mind, and long-term, sustainable, and people-centered development at the forefront of her policy agenda.

Africa’s reliance on humanitarian assistance and emergency food aid is growing alongside regional and world hunger. As commodity prices and export revenues fall, cereal imports to sub-Saharan Africa have risen above 20%. The region now accepts more than half of global food aid, reported the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Services in the 2008-9 Food Security Assessment.

A food sovereignty approach may provide an alternative, in this time of global economic crisis and beyond.

Traditional food aid has failed utterly to counter world hunger, much less ease poverty. At the recent G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, leaders announced their intention to shift the focus of hunger alleviation efforts from short-term humanitarian aid to long-term agricultural development. This statement was a particularly positive step for the US, which has dumped subsidized agricultural goods into developing nations under the guise of humanitarian aid (and free trade) for decades. But it remains unclear just how much impact the declaration will have, particularly as G8 leaders have taken few steps to consult farmers and communities on the ground for their perspectives on establishing strong agricultural systems that meet local needs.

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Yesterday, I barely managed to squeeze into the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on “The Case for Foreign Aid Reform: Foreign Aid and Development in a New Era.”

The room was packed with young people, and spectators overflowed into the hallway. Senator Robert Menendez jokingly asked Dr. Jeffrey Sachs if he had invited his university classes to attend. As pleased as I was that the Senator noticed our presence, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he misunderstood our reason for being there—we may be interning on the Hill or for advocacy organizations in D.C. this summer, but we are also voters, taxpayers, and activists. We packed into the SFRC hearing like sardines because we are interested, informed, engaged, and passionate about politics, not for extra credit.

The truth is, older generations still fail to take young people seriously. It’s the fault of both sides; Menendez needs to realize the significance of young people’s presence at that hearing, and we students need to make more calls, write more letters, cast more votes, attend more meetings, and raise our voices outside Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the blog world.  The social networking sites our parents hate may serve as a valuable tool to connect us with the rest of the world, but affiliating with groups or causes is nothing more than mere affiliation if we don’t use that network to act. As more and more of us study abroad and gain first-hand perspectives on the world’s challenges, we’re exposed to innovative and collaborative approaches to global development and security. Young people packed the SFRC hearing because we want to know whether our government—the country with the richest economy in the world—is pulling its weight and supporting these solutions.

Wednesday’s SFRC hearing was designed to address this question:  Are U.S. foreign assistance programs working?

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Somewhat unexpectedly for many Africans, America’s first African American president offered the continent rather tough love in his first official visit. Amidst the usual political fluff, President Obama’s recent speech, delivered in Ghana this Saturday, contained some very pointed comments, including a controversial assertion that the time to blame colonization and Western exploitation for Africa’s problems has ended.

While the development crisis in Africa can be difficult to talk about in the United States, no matter how well-informed, traveled, or racially-sensitive one might be, President Obama leveraged his African background to tell Africans point-blank that their problems stem from weak government structures, traditions of corruption and nepotism, and the people’s failure to insist upon accountability. Though I personally feel that colonial policies and institutions have plenty to do with modern African instability, corruption, and ethnic conflict, I’m pleased to hear Obama demanding more of Africans—especially young Africans. Such demands from John McCain or Hillary Clinton could not have held the same weight.

Obama’s controversial statements have, somewhat predictably, inspired bickering and finger-pointing on countless internet forums. I can’t help but feel that something has been lost amid these arguments. In all likelihood, Obama is more acutely aware of the historical injustices Africa has suffered than any of his predecessors. His speech in Accra was not meant to deny these, but to signal that the time has come for Africa to move forward. Unending arguments about historical responsibility aside, Africa and the West should be able to agree on one point: African development solutions must come from Africans from here on out.

As I learned while living in Kenya last year, African artists, entrepreneurs, and civil society organizations are ready for that responsibility. The question then becomes, “How do we empower these solutions?”

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At the heads of Commonwealth meeting in Uganda — where 53 states belong to the former British Commonwealth — UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged 700 million pounds in development aid to the East African country. This adds to the yearly combined giving amount of $26 billion from Europe and recent substantial debt forgiveness by G8 finance ministers.

But aid, more often than not, stifles real development and industrialization in Africa. In fact, it goes further by enabling corruption and putting power in the hands of those who don’t deserve it. This isn’t merely coming from Western policy-wonks. Kenyan economist James Shikwati called for "ending this terrible aid" in an article noting that, on the whole,  aid also hurts trade. And the president of Uganda himself, Yoweri Museveni, once said, "I don’t want aid; I want trade."

Investment capital is a needed component in the fight against abject poverty. Business solutions — in the form of direct investment by responsible, rights-abiding foreign companies — will help deliver slowing economies like that in Uganda and Africa at large from the world’s worst poverty by employing native Africans, paying them relatively good money, and training them in important disciplines.

Foreign direct investment isn’t the only trick in the playbook. The burgeoning microfinance industry, comprised by for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations, will help bring small native businesses to their feet and increase the flow of accessible capital at rates comparatively good for the borrowers.

Development aid has its place — but that’s just it: it has a place. It best assists emergency endeavors by funding medical treatments and food delivery. Development aid shouldn’t be the bread and butter of money going into Africa.

Bottom line: If the world is interested in ending endemic poverty in Africa, leaders should stop sending so much aid and start encouraging more trade.

I had two thoughts when I read this article: 1) This study highlights the global impact of U.S. immigration.  An impact that is wholly ignored in the domestic immigration debate. 2) The admission that this study was conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank to determine how to "leverage" these remittances is frightening given the IDB’s history of using their funds for political influence. (paragraph 5).

Migrant workers worldwide sent home more than US$300 billion in 2006, new study finds 

Migrant workers sent home more than US$300 billion to their families in developing countries in 2006, according to a study released today in Washington D.C. by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

“This figure, which is a conservative estimate, shows that the seemingly small sums sent home by migrant workers, when added together, dwarf official development assistance,” said Kevin Cleaver, IFAD’s assistant president.

Donor nations provided almost $US 104 billion in aid to developing countries last year, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Remittances are generated by some 150 million migrants who send money home regularly, typically between US$100 and US$300 at a time, and mostly from industrialized nations in North America, Europe and Asia.

Donald F. Terry, general manager of the IDB’s Multilateral Investment Fund, pointed out that migrant remittances also surpassed foreign direct investment in developing countries, which last year totaled around $167 billion, according to the Institute of International Finance.

“Generating information about the scale of remittances is the first step towards lowering their costs and improving our ability to leverage these flows to achieve a greater development impact,” said Terry, whose fund has been analyzing remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean since 2000.

Cleaver and Terry presented the study, Sending money home: Worldwide remittances to developing countries, and a map produced by IFAD, the first one to show remittances on a worldwide basis and to highlight the rural share of these flows.

According to the study, in 2006 Asia was the top destination of remittances, receiving more than US$114 billion, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (US$68 billion), Eastern Europe (US$51 billion), Africa (US$39 billion) and the Near East (US$29 billion).

Taking nations individually, India received the most (US$24.5 billion), followed by Mexico (US$24.2 billion), China (US$21 billion), the Philippines (US$14.6 billion) and Russia (US$13.7 billion).

Of the countries covered in the report, 59 receive more than US$1 billion a year in remittances and 45 receive more than 10 percent of their GDP from their expatriates.

The IFAD study, which was carried out in collaboration with the IDB, based its figures on official data from governments, banks and money transfer operators, as well as on estimates of informal flows, such as money carried home.

IFAD, a specialized United Nations agency that fights poverty in rural areas in developing countries worldwide, underscored the finding that more than one third of these remittances flow to families in rural areas, where poverty tends to be worse than in cities.

“For IFAD the most important thing to look at is how to channel this money so that it contributes to prosperity in rural areas,” said Cleaver. “One of our priorities is to improve poor people’s options by finding ways to cut transaction costs and link remittances to other financial services such as savings, investments and loans.”

While remittances are mostly used for basic necessities such as food, clothing and medicines, between 10 percent and 20 percent is saved. However, too often these savings are hidden in homes, stuffed under mattresses or in cooking pots, rather than put to work in financial institutions, constituting a major missed opportunity for local economic development.

Over the past few years the IDB’s Multilateral Investment Fund has encouraged microfinance institutions, credit unions and banks that cater to lower-income clients to provide remittance services in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a result of increased competition, transaction cost have fallen sharply for money transfers to major urban areas in this region.

"It’s always been harder to expand financial services beyond cities. Operating costs are higher, communications more difficult, clients poorer, few and far between. But remittances can be a key for credit unions or microfinance institutions to offer more services to rural clients. This is the kind of solution the IDB-IFAD partnership seeks to promote," added Terry.

The study and the map were released on the eve of the International Forum on Remittances 2007, which will take place on October 18-19 at the IDB’s conference center (1330 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.).

The event, cohosted by IFAD and the IDB, will bring together migrant associations, financial institutions and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the impact of these flows on development and rural economies, as well as to explore the links between remittances and banking, technology and microfinance.

IFAD is an international financial institution dedicated to fighting poverty and hunger in rural areas of developing countries. Through low-interest loans and grants, it is currently supporting 191 rural poverty eradication programs and projects worth a total of US$6.6 billion.

The IDB is the largest and oldest regional development bank and the leading source of multilateral financing for Latin America and the Caribbean. Its Multilateral Investment Fund promotes private sector development in the region, with an emphasis on microenterprise.

I found this article from AlertNet interesting. I’m not sure if I should be depressed by it, or retain some hope that aid work can become apolitical again. I guess my feelings are clouded by my now ever-present outrage and disgust at the actions of the Bush Administration and my horror at the bloody mess in Iraq.

Judge for yourself. Is Malloch-Brown right? 

In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, aid workers have come to be seen as part of the West’s political machinery, and so have lost much of their protection, Malloch Brown warned, pointing to attacks on the United Nations and Red Cross in Iraq.

It has also become politically impossible to talk to some groups who control access to needy populations, he said. "I, and my generation, thought nothing of talking to the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban, internationally unrecognised rabble and terrorist groups to negotiate humanitarian access… Getting these leaders, even war criminals, to allow us to reach civilians did not in our minds constitute political recognition of them. In the Age of the War on Terror, such contacts have become near impossible."

At the same time, he said it was important the world should realize it had a right and responsibility to intervene in sovereign states that were committing gross abuses.

"If the old humanitarian work had an internal fault, it was in its belief that food or medicine was neutral… We cannot be neutral about suffering and rights," he said. "And we must hold the perpetrators of abuses to account."

It wasn’t dissimilar to some of the rhetoric that preceded the Iraq war. And when a young international lawyer shot back that apparent failure in Iraq might be seen to undermine that argument, Malloch Brown conceded he had a point.

"We have been dealt to the worst hand possible," he said as he shared the stage with Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the war and then its envoy to post-war Baghdad.

But Iraq was also an opportunity, Malloch Brown argued, drawing a parallel between it and the aftermath of the Vietnam, when torrents of young humanitarians rushed to help in the aftermath of another unpopular war.

"For most of us each argument for the war – weapons of mass destruction, the promotion of democracy, bringing stability and freedom to Iraq and the wider region – lies shattered," he said. "That is why the argument for helping has never been stronger. At a humanitarian, as well as a political level, we need to try and fix a broken country."

In my office, we talk about Iraq frequently, and my colleagues have told me that many Bosnians are doing aid work in Iraq now. My emotions tell me I should be in Iraq, where humanitarian assistance is so desperately needed by so many, but my brain reminds me that my mere presence, as an American, would endanger the lives of everyone around me.

As ever, the Economist is covering parts of the world in depth that you rarely even see in the news briefs section elsewhere.  This time it’s the Horn of Africa, which the Economist says is on “the path to ruin” in an article that illustrates how a devastating humanitarian crisis has descended into an even more dire situation that is worrisome on all sorts of levels.

The Horn of Africa, consisting of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia in East Africa, is on the edge of a precipice right now that results from a combination of political instability, extreme hunger and uncontrolled population increases (over half the population is under 15).  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the hungry region has been experiencing a severe drought.  Indeed, the environmental situation is dire: Only 5% of the natural habitat remains and experts predict that the Horn will become wholly unsustainable if temperatures rise one or two degrees as predicted due to global warming.  And now, enter al Qaeda, who seeks to exploit the Horn’s fragility by encouraging radicalism and imposing its own order.

The combination of humanitarian, environmental and security concerns that have mixed together in the Horn of Africa is horrifying, but no coincidence.  Reading this article reminds me of why the United States must not miss opportunities to promote sustainable development, especially in unstable parts of the world, by providing aid, supporting population control and stopping environmental degredation.  Otherwise, we may be faced with situations that are not only morally outrageous but also threatening to our security.

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