How Oxfam and Save changed US aid on local ownership: nice case study in influencing

November 30, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I do love it when NGOs are taken by surprise in a good way – getting results in unexpected ways, rather than grinding through the plan. A neat example came up at Oxfam’s recent Evidence for Influencing conference. Here’s what happened.

Oxfam America and Save the Children wanted to persuade USAID to do more on ‘local ownership’ of aid. It’s a bipartisan issue in the US (the Bush Administration established the Millennium Challenge Corporation with an approach centred on local priorities; under President Obama USAID set up the Local Solutions Initiative, with the goal of channelling 30% of aid to local organizations.)

But the fear was that ownership could become just another passing fad. Despite a commitment to ownership by

LEAF diagram of resiliency in Northern Ghana
LEAF diagram for USAID project in Ghana

USAID and MCC leadership, plenty of officials looked like they were planning to do nothing, hoping that the topic would go away and they could get back to business as usual (doling out big chunks of aid cash to organizations like Chemonics). Oxfam doesn’t take USAID money, so it was easy to push localization, one aspect of USAID’s ownership approach. Save’s involvement was in that sense more laudable, because it runs counter to its short term financial interest.

Initially, Save the Children and Oxfam planned to share positive ownership case studies of MCC and USAID projects in Indonesia, Jordan, Ghana and Rwanda. To do that, they needed some way of assessing ownership, so they developed a really boring-sounding tool – the Local Engagement Assessment Framework (LEAF). The results of which can be displayed in a rather nifty tree diagram (Leaf; tree – geddit?).  The LEAF assessed ownership across the different phases of the project cycle (setting priorities, implementation; resourcing and long term sustainability). At each phase, they explored who was involved (the left-hand side of the tree – the broader the engagement the further left) and how (the right hand of the tree – length of branch determined by the amount of power in the hands of local stakeholders).

What happened next is the interesting bit: according to Oxfam’s Marc Cohen ‘we thought the case studies, telling the stories of ownership were going to be the thing. In the end, the tool has been more influential.’ USAID is considering a pilot using the LEAF as a project-planning and M&E tool.  The Green Climate Fund has expressed interest in the LEAF as well.

Why? In large part, good/lucky timing. The big cheeses had said yes to ownership (eg signing the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness), and now the worker bees were saying ‘how?’ That kind of  implementation gap + push from the top is an open door for advocacy.

As a result USAID, in the process of revising its internal guidance, committed itself to promoting and measuring ownership without an agreed upon strategy for doing so. The LEAF came along at just the right time, and USAID officials have suggested to staff that it’s a good tool to use in implementing the guidance.

LEAF’s design helped: to get access to the various project teams, the toolkit was deliberately less confrontational than the traditional NGO scorecard, and allowed for comparisons between countries and programmes without reducing everything to ‘a is better than b’.

This played out through the internal battles within USAID, according to Save’s Kristin Sundell: ‘We were working with technocrats committed to advancing ownership but facing obstacles from their colleagues. The resistance was often ‘this is just flavour of the month, just sit it out til it passes. Our goal was to institutionalise ownership to survive the transition to the next [US] administration.’ The research, available at, was just part of Oxfam America’s (and Save the Children’s) broader advocacy agenda in support of local ownership of development.

And the result? USAID staff are now evaluated and promoted based on how well they are doing on ownership and there has been a knock-on effect on recruitment and training. In so far as anything is certain at USAID these days (which is not very), promoting ownership is now hard wired into USAID.

There are some interesting wider lessons here. A new but fuzzy issue – local ownership – found its way into the policy funnel through the Paris Declaration and some leadership at the top of the US aid system. That created both an implementation gap and a window of opportunity for some smart advocacy. Similar things have been happening around ‘resilience’ or ‘modern slavery’. The lesson for activists is that in those situations, you need to help champions and supporters within the system enshrine the new approaches in their institutions, and helping them come up with practical ways to do so may be a better contribution than keeping up the pressure from outside.


November 30, 2017
Duncan Green