Localizing aid: “The definition is very subjective”

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Karen Sichinga, of the Churches Health Association of Zambia

When the topic is localizing aid, what counts as “local?”

Does it mean having a main office in Washington DC office and also in the Lusaka, the capital of Zambia? Or does it mean “indigenous, organic, homegrown?”

Perhaps one is “local,” and the other is “local, local,” Karen Sichinga, head of the Churches Health Association of Zambia, who offered both of those interpretations, said. “The definition is very subjective,”

But, she added, the distinction is clear.

“We do not see money flowing to the local, local,” she said.

Sichinga was speaking on a panel at an April 30 event marking the release of the report Going Local: The Promise and Challenge of Aid Localization. The report, prompted by what it calls “the growing trend of giving money directly to a developing country’s government or to local NGOs, rather than giving indirectly through large international organizations,” looks at the impacts of the added burdens that handling all that money puts on organizations. The discussion, however, focused first on what “going local” means, and what shifting aid to local entities is meant to accomplish.

Raj Kumar, founder of the Devex global development site, who moderated the discussion, asked Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, one of two USAID representatives on the panel if an organization’s “indigenous and organic” credentials are important to him.

“We want to see these countries walk on their own,” Pablos-Mendez said.

Elizabeth Warfield, the other USAID representative, whose title is “local systems coordinator,” put it more directly. “Local aid is not an end unto itself,” she said. Sustainability, she added, is the actual goal.

“Local is part of our DNA,” asserted Save the Children Chief Operating Officer Carlos Carrazana, adding that the nearly century-old organization  has been “pushing for local ownership for nearly a decade.”

Lack of “capacities” often stands as an obstacle to local ownership of local efforts, all three said.

“When we continuously hear that we don’t have capacities, in all honesty we feel insulted,” Sichinga said. “We want donors to believe we have inherent capacities.”

A member of the audience, who referred to himself as a former USAID staffer, raised questions of corruption and accountability. Arresting people overseas can be difficult, he added.

“We cannot compromise on risk,” Sichinga said. Sichinga, who has worked for CHAZ since 1991, and headed the organization for the last six years, did not add that her organization has demonstrated that commitment more than some international organizations.

lobalization panel

Carlos Carrazana of Save the Children, Karen Sichinga of Churches Health Association of Zambia, Linn Dorin of Global Finance Strategies, Raj Kumar of Devex, Ariel Pablos-Mendez of USAID, and Elizabeth Warfield of USAID.

One of four Zambia principal recipients of grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, that also include two Zambian government ministries, CHAZ was the only one with fully and appropriately accounted for funds when Global Fund auditors arrived in 2009.

While CHAZ stood alone for its accountability among other local principal recipients, Sichinga also didn’t mention that this is a standard that some Washington, DC- based aid contractors, have not lived up to. That includes Academy for Educational Development, cut off from receiving USAID funds and subsequently dissolved following a 2010 investigation into missing money. More recently includes International Relief and Development, suspended from further contracts in January after receiving more USAID grants than any other contractor, and using USAID funds to throw lavish “compulsory attendance” parties for staff, provide salaries two and three times higher than those at comparable organizations, according to Post reports.

Sichinga settled for noting that while accountability is important, “local, local” organizations like hers, which are required to supply more detailed information than “localized” Washington, DC organizations, could accomplish more if accounting processes were streamlined.

“Sometimes we spend more time accounting for money than implementing,” she said.

While what international organizations working with her organization are not required to divulge their salaries to her, she is required to supply that information about hers. That makes countering the “poaching” by international organizations of skilled local staff members difficult, she added. Local organizations only want, she said, “to have a seat at the table.”

She was grateful for the chance to meet and talk to the representatives from USAID on the panel with her that day, she said. It is an opportunity, she added, she does not get in Zambia.




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