Janti Soeripto is President & CEO of Save the Children.
Disclaimer: This article was submitted to WorkwithUSAID.org as a guest blog post. The views expressed by WorkwithUSAID.org guest blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government.
Save the Children was founded over 100 years ago by two visionary, activist sisters in early 20th century Britain. Within five years, they established a global organization, and their writings evolved into one of the world’s most ratified conventions: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Today Save the Children is a widespread global movement for children, operating in over 100 countries. While we make positive change for children and families, we’re also part of an international development system—built on imperial and colonial power dynamics—that needs to change. Local partners have long called on international actors for more equitable and dignified partnerships, and recent discourse sparked by global social movements lends new urgency to addressing power imbalances in our sector.
Most importantly, rhetoric on “shifting power” must turn into action. While the COVID-19 pandemic underscored that we can—and must—transition to locally led approaches and increase funding flexibility to programs where it is needed most, the aid system hasn’t fully seized this opportunity to dramatically change. We cannot fail to change again.
Nine months ago, Ambassador Samantha Power, the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), renewed the Agency’s localization commitments, calling for 25 percent of its expenditures to go through local organizations (currently barely 6 percent makes it there) and 50 percent to support locally led programming. The Agency’s draft Policy Framework—and other new and updated localization-related policies—makes clear their intent to follow through and implement localization across the Agency.
As a longstanding USAID partner, we’re acutely aware of our responsibility to lean in.
We applaud this ambition, whilst mindful that this declaration—as well as some of our own—must be followed by sustainable and bold action. And, our actions must be bolder than in the past, where efforts were largely over-promised and under-delivered. As a longstanding USAID partner, we’re acutely aware of our responsibility to lean in. So, as we both—USAID and Save the Children—seek to shift power, here are the steps we must take to truly transform the system and reach these goals:
1. Make a mindset change.
Let go of an often-false sense of control and risk aversion. Make good on our belief that our international expertise doesn’t position us to better understand the needs of affected communities, who are embedded within local cultures and ecosystems.
2. Better share resources.
Increase quality, core funding for local partners. And “local” should be defined as headquartered and operating in the country and not affiliated with an international nongovernmental organization (NGO). Simplify funding management and procurement requirements, and support local partners to compete and perform with grants from USAID and other donors.
3. Take the lead from local partners on programming and policy.
Co-design, implement, and evaluate programs with local partners and their constituents. Their knowledge, experiences, and opinions should shape our priorities and strategies. This also necessitates ample time and accessibility resources for partners to weigh in on all USAID policy updates. For example, the Localization Advisory Council (LAC) in Ethiopia is an independent body of local actors that informs Save the Children’s strategic decision-making and priority setting.
4. Support local capacity strengthening.
Invest in local partners to build their own organizations, focusing on areas where they want to improve and grow. We hope USAID’s new Local Capacity Strengthening Policy will address and integrate this across sectors.
5. Publicly release localization plans, strategies and data in a timely manner for transparency and accountability.
We know that a localization vision statement, an updated Acquisition & Assistance Strategy, and a revised Risk Appetite statement are all forthcoming from USAID. Yet, still needed are USAID’s data collection on localization indicators and a multi-year strategy on localization.
6. Support financing for development.
Going beyond traditional cycles of aid means strengthening local country capacity to raise revenues equitably and budget for their own development.
7. Support and scale innovative funding mechanisms with greater flexibility.
Save the Children has worked with local and national actors in South Sudan to establish a self-governed Local Response Pooled Fund (LRPF-SS). These types of mechanisms can be scaled and replicated by others.
8. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Build on research and toolkits from partners, and share learnings publicly with other donors and partners—tools such as the Local Engagement Assessment Framework and guidance for the meaningful participation of children and youth.
The current global food insecurity crisis is the moment to change an aid system that disproportionately benefits organizations in the Global North. According to our recent research, 5.8 million children under five years of age face severe malnutrition through the end of the year across the Horn of Africa. We know that local actors are typically best placed to act, and that local solutions are already being created and implemented. For example, local NGOs in Kenya took action before the emergency to distribute cash transfers valuing $1.8 million to meet the needs of 5,000 households in eight counties.
“We are embracing the fact that power is slowly shifting to those we work with, what we call our localization agenda. In the implementation of our strategic plan we want to progressively increase the leadership and authority of affected people in determining how resources are used within their communities to address their priorities,” confirms Yvonne Arunga, Save the Children’s Kenya and Madagascar Country Director.
Localization improves the sustainability and impact of foreign assistance and ensures children and communities are in the driver’s seat. It is our hope that USAID, as the largest global bilateral donor, can set the pace, listening to national- and community-level stakeholders—especially children and young people—to inform their agenda and make bold, concrete moves to demonstrate its seriousness to change. Real progress cannot take another decade.
Save the Children is fully committed to increasing opportunities for communities and children, shifting power in our programs, governance, and influence, and making sure we walk the talk of localization at every level. We know this won’t be easy for us—century-old institutions are often loath to change—but we must persist and do so with the knowledge that children’s futures will be all the brighter for it.
This is an introductory blog in a series of commentaries exploring best partnership principles and practices that Save the Children intends to post on this platform with our local partners.