, , ,

One of the recurring challenges in the international development and humanitarian aid world is transferring programs and institutions which were initially established and funded by outside donors to ownership by local authorities. The concepts of “local ownership” and “national capacity-building” seem to crop up everywhere in UN / international NGO strategic visions and work-plan documents. The common mantra of transition strategies is that local authorities must define and implement national ownership plans on their own terms – not in the terms of outside consultants or agencies. It sounds reasonable and fair, but of course it never seems to quite work out that way in practice.

Your blogger has spent much of the last week reading through a series of reports by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) about the experience of transitioning mine action programs to national ownership in places like Cambodia, Mozambique, Albania, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. It’s part of a background research project to help inform the dialogue process on transferring the Tajikistan Mine Action Centre (TMAC) to national ownership by 2015. Currently it is run as a de facto UNDP program, but with major landmine clearance operations (and donor funding along with it) scheduled to scale down over the next 2-3 years, there is a need to transfer humanitarian demining capacity to Tajik government control. The idea behind researching the experience of foreign cases is to buy time and avoid hard decisions study the process of mine action nationalization as it unfolded elsewhere, and use the lessons learned from these cases to help smooth the transition here.

So, to continue with the theme of the frustrating elements in international development work that my colleague Devin in Cambodia wrote about last week, here are a few quick thoughts on what I have learned so far about “local ownership” in the development world. While I have written these observations with mine action issues in mind, I suspect they are applicable to many other areas of international development programming as well.

The first thing to know is to never underestimate the power of institutional inertia and path dependency. One of the basic features of almost any organization is the tendency to fiercely resist changes which might diminish resources, autonomy or influence. In the world of mine action, this applies to both central coordinating agencies (mine action centers) as well as the implementing “operators”. Coordinating agencies (such as TMAC) are wary of being transferred to the control of a government ministry which might end up curtailing its resources and influence, while implementing partner organizations (including NPA, where I work) are also skeptical about disturbing the status quo. Looking at the global picture, in almost every case where mine actions programs were originally established as directly managed programs under the UNDP or another international entity, the process of transitioning them to national ownership has either been painfully strung out or just failed altogether. By contrast, programs established under local government control from the start – even if they depend heavily on foreign donors for funding and technical assistance – generally have a much easier time adjusting to the withdrawal of external partners.

For the same reason, if a series of mine action programs are established in one country and start operating independently of each other (as in Mozambique), it is exceedingly difficult to “reign them in” under a centralized, nationally-owned coordinating body. Feeble or poorly executed efforts to establish control may make the situation even worse, because it will create a credibility gap on the part of the government.

A second principal challenge is the conflict between the short-term pressure to “just get on with” operations and the long-term objectives of institutional capacity-building and sustainability. When creating a mine action program from scratch in post-conflict environments there are intense pressures to start demining operations without delay, which usually implies hiring staff outside the government system and paying much higher salaries. A rushed program set-up like this can quickly become a source of conflict with existing civil servants, who may feel their authority has been circumvented by the UN and international NGOs. Moreover, newly recruited staff are unlikely to remain in the mine action sector once international funding runs out, resulting in the loss of local capacity that had been built up. Unfortunately, concepts such as national ownership and local capacity-building can often be viewed as secondary priorities by international organizations, viewed as a task separate from “getting the job done.”

Third, good planning is necessary but not sufficient for a successful transition process. Naturally, many external evaluations and reports on the challenges of transitioning development programs to national ownership call for better transition planning, and the need to make this a priority early in the program lifecycle. Unfortunately, even the most prescient and well-organized transition plans can quickly go off track when outside factors interject, such as changes in key personnel or even governments, shifts in donor priorities, operational setbacks, or any number of other random variables. Moreover, overly complex and detailed transition plans may simply be ignored, especially if the political commitment or technical competence of national officials is low (as happened with the mine action program in South Sudan). This is the worst possible outcome – not only is there no transfer to local ownership, but confidence in the transitional process itself may be further eroded.

Finally, although it is a somewhat overused cliché, skilled and committed leadership is vital. Having an influential and determined individual who sustains focus and momentum is absolutely critical to breaking through all of the above-mentioned obstacles. High level government officials, as well as foreign donors, have many competing priorities crowding out their attention, and will quickly lose interest in a transition process without determined efforts to keep things moving. Alternatively, supporting capacity development and local ownership without focused leadership or adequate commitment from stakeholders is much like pushing on a string – it won’t get you anywhere.

To recap: promoting local ownership in international development is hard, and doubly so when the project/program/institution has a relatively low profile, as is the case with mine action efforts in countries like Tajikistan. Ultimately, however, the fact remains that abrupt and unplanned transitions are costly and can lead to total program collapse, which leaves both donors and host governments worse off. For this reason, nationalization and local ownership remain important goals for all stakeholders.

For those readers who have encountered these issues in your own work – what do you think?

Sure are lots of hills in this country.

Sure are lots of hills in this country.