“Partnering with U.S. NGOs should be a key part of USAID’s strategy for promoting effective global development,” says a July 2012 policy paper from InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs. A New Vision for the USAID-U.S. NGO Relationship outlines “important and unique assets” of the American NGO community and identifies potential opportunities for improved collaboration between USAID and NGOs working on international development projects.
In today’s rapidly evolving development arena, civil society and government both bring critical elements to international development strategies. “NGOs have accumulated knowledge, experience and social capital that can contribute very significantly to reaching development goals both sectors share,” the paper said. For many NGOs, these include having long-established partnerships with local populations and, in some cases, working in areas “beyond the reach of U.S. government staff.” NGOs also often enjoy “the freedom to experiment, take chances and innovate in ways that are difficult for the U.S. government and publically-funded institutions.”
The paper lists “growing concerns” over changes in the NGO-USAID relationship in recent years. It said the problem “flows in large part out of a fundamental misunderstanding by USAID leadership of the character and current nature of the NGO community and its commitment, expertise and ability to achieve development results.” It notes the following particular concerns:
A lack of strategic policy engagement: “When NGO perspectives are considered, it is generally only after a policy has been reached.” (emphasis added)
A shift from a partnership framework to a control focus: Rather than providing NGOs with flexibility adequate to capitalize on their expertise and experience, USAID treats them as tightly controlled implementers of prescriptive pre-set plans. This includes everything from staff structures to reporting requirements.
Rhetoric casting NGOs as costly middlemen rather than valued partners: This “reflects a limited understanding” of NGOs role and potential contributions, including funds and expertise.
To maximize the effectiveness of USAID’s relationship with NGOs, the paper recommends that USAID create a mechanism for consulting NGOs in strategic policy discussions, and calls on USAID to better utilize NGOs’ skills and expertise during program development along with during program implementation.