On November 4th, during a speech at Georgetown University, USAID Administrator Samantha Power further detailed and cemented her priorities at USAID for the Biden Administration.
Administrator Power discussed several topics ranging from increased work with the private sector to COVID-19 response. However, as a long-time advocate and researcher around locally led development and the increased localization of aid funding, I was very interested in the new agency goals. These goals included giving 25% of funding to local actors by the end of Biden’s first term and incorporating more local input into 50% of programming by the end of the decade—something that might not be in Administrator Power’s control depending on the 2024 election outcome.
While the specifics of the goals were new, the idea that the agency could and should increase funding to local actors was not. Several months ago, the Administrator brought on Don Steinberg as an expert advisor tasked with increasing localization efforts within the agency. Policy wonks, advocates, and implementing partners knew something around localization was likely in the works. Prior to that, initiatives started by the two previous Administrations, the New Partnership Initiative and Local Solutions, aimed to achieve similar goals. Those expectations were validated in the Administrator's speech at Georgetown:
We must offer people, not a vision merely of international development but a vision of inclusive development. I mean that in three ways: First, we have to broaden our coalition to allow people from more diverse backgrounds and partners of all kinds to participate in our mission. We must make aid more accessible. Second, we must shift our thinking to be more focused on the voices and needs of the most marginalized. We must make aid more equitable. And third, in confronting some of the biggest challenges of our time—COVID-19, climate change, growing authoritarianism—we must listen to what our partners in the countries where we work are asking of us. We must make aid more responsive.
As Administrator Power stated in her speech, it’s estimated that only 6% of USAID funding goes to local actors. This number is extremely low for an agency that attempted to direct 30% of funding to local actors over ten years ago and has continued to state the importance of local funding ever since.
Why is the Administration setting a lower goal 10 years later? The short answer is that USAID can’t figure out how to actually fund local actors at scale within the current aid environment.
What has changed this time around is that localization has been mainstreamed by much of the development and humanitarian community, USAID staff have more tools to work with local actors, and there are several champions for localization, including on The Hill.
However, these changes have yet to fully address well-known barriers to working with local actors.
These barriers include real or perceived financial and management risk, real or perceived weak capacity of local actors, cumbersome rules and regulations, challenging country contexts, lack of USAID staff to oversee awards to local actors, and the ever-present challenge to making changes in a slow-moving bureaucratic government agency.
As USAID embarks on another set of goals to create more locally led development and fund local actors, what do you think needs to change this time around?
What changes within reporting requirements, rules or regulations would make it easier for local actors to access USAID funding?
What can Congress do to support localization efforts?
What have been the most challenging requirements for local organizations working with USAID, and why?
What has been the most difficult for organizations sub-contracting to local actors, and why?
What needs to change within the USAID and implementing partner culture? What USAID systems and structures need to change?