How Oxfam and Save changed US aid on local ownership: nice case study in influencing

I do love it when NGOs are taken by surprise in a good way – getting results in unexpected ways, rather than grinding through the plan. A neat example came up at Oxfam’s recent Evidence for Influencing conference. Here’s what happened.

Oxfam America and Save the Children wanted to persuade USAID to do more on ‘local ownership’ of aid. It’s a bipartisan issue in the US (the Bush Administration established the Millennium Challenge Corporation with an approach centred on local priorities; under President Obama USAID set up the Local Solutions Initiative, with the goal of channelling 30% of aid to local organizations.)

But the fear was that ownership could become just another passing fad. Despite a commitment to ownership by

LEAF diagram for USAID project in Ghana
LEAF diagram for USAID project in Ghana

USAID and MCC leadership, plenty of officials looked like they were planning to do nothing, hoping that the topic would go away and they could get back to business as usual (doling out big chunks of aid cash to organizations like Chemonics). Oxfam doesn’t take USAID money, so it was easy to push localization, one aspect of USAID’s ownership approach. Save’s involvement was in that sense more laudable, because it runs counter to its short term financial interest.

Initially, Save the Children and Oxfam planned to share positive ownership case studies of MCC and USAID projects in Indonesia, Jordan, Ghana and Rwanda. To do that, they needed some way of assessing ownership, so they developed a really boring-sounding tool – the Local Engagement Assessment Framework (LEAF). The results of which can be displayed in a rather nifty tree diagram (Leaf; tree – geddit?).  The LEAF assessed ownership across the different phases of the project cycle (setting priorities, implementation; resourcing and long term sustainability). At each phase, they explored who was involved (the left-hand side of the tree – the broader the engagement the further left) and how (the right hand of the tree – length of branch determined by the amount of power in the hands of local stakeholders).

What happened next is the interesting bit: according to Oxfam’s Marc Cohen ‘we thought the case studies, telling the stories of ownership were going to be the thing. In the end, the tool has been more influential.’ USAID is considering a pilot using the LEAF as a project-planning and M&E tool.  The Green Climate Fund has expressed interest in the LEAF as well.

Why? In large part, good/lucky timing. The big cheeses had said yes to ownership (eg signing the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness), and now the worker bees were saying ‘how?’ That kind of  implementation gap + push from the top is an open door for advocacy.

As a result USAID, in the process of revising its internal guidance, committed itself to promoting and measuring ownership without an agreed upon strategy for doing so. The LEAF came along at just the right time, and USAID officials have suggested to staff that it’s a good tool to use in implementing the guidance.

LEAF’s design helped: to get access to the various project teams, the toolkit was deliberately less confrontational than the traditional NGO scorecard, and allowed for comparisons between countries and programmes without reducing everything to ‘a is better than b’.

LEAF diagram for MCC project in Indonesia
LEAF diagram for MCC project in Indonesia

This played out through the internal battles within USAID, according to Save’s Kristin Sundell: ‘We were working with technocrats committed to advancing ownership but facing obstacles from their colleagues. The resistance was often ‘this is just flavour of the month, just sit it out til it passes. Our goal was to institutionalise ownership to survive the transition to the next [US] administration.’ The research, available at, was just part of Oxfam America’s (and Save the Children’s) broader advocacy agenda in support of local ownership of development.

And the result? USAID staff are now evaluated and promoted based on how well they are doing on ownership and there has been a knock-on effect on recruitment and training. In so far as anything is certain at USAID these days (which is not very), promoting ownership is now hard wired into USAID.

There are some interesting wider lessons here. A new but fuzzy issue – local ownership – found its way into the policy funnel through the Paris Declaration and some leadership at the top of the US aid system. That created both an implementation gap and a window of opportunity for some smart advocacy. Similar things have been happening around ‘resilience’ or ‘modern slavery’. The lesson for activists is that in those situations, you need to help champions and supporters within the system enshrine the new approaches in their institutions, and helping them come up with practical ways to do so may be a better contribution than keeping up the pressure from outside.


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4 Responses to “How Oxfam and Save changed US aid on local ownership: nice case study in influencing”
  1. Ben Ramalingam

    Without wanting to diminish the excellent work of Oxfam and Save, there were a lot of wider factors and actors involved, something I feel that the title and the narrative push of this piece falls a bit short on addressing… the direct congressional approval of the Local Solutions Initiative was no small factor in the staying power of the programme; and there certainly wasn’t a vacuum around this internally waiting to be filled – ODI did a lot of directly commissioned work on specific case studies of localisation that fed into USAID thinking; there was also a big push on systems approaches internally, including at mission level, which included a systems-informed strategy; there was also an extensive mapping of different tools and models for localisation, including financial mechanisms… I worry that this piece risks overclaiming attribution instead of carefully assessing contribution…

  2. Aimee Russillo

    thanks Duncan! it shows a good use of visualization to simplify this complex topic in a way that allows for further discussion. glad to see the possibility of uptake of tools – as you noted – timing is important. Patience perseverance…we’re learning….

  3. David Saldivar

    Very interesting! As committed partisans of complexity I think Oxfam and Save would agree that influence from the research is and will be contributory to the efforts and successes of others. On Ben’s point about ODI’s prior work, it’s noteworthy that Oxfam and Save worked with the ODI researcher who led that series of localization studies, to develop the methodology used in the LEAF. This evaluation report from earlier this year is also instructive on the topic of advocates’ contribution to keeping the Local Solutions agenda moving within USAID and the broader policy environment in DC, and what’s attributable to whom ( In particular, if there was “direct congressional approval” of Local Solutions (debatable; the Implementation and Procurement Reform agenda that evolved into Local Solutions faced a lot of resistance from the incumbent implementers and their congressional supporters), the research and policy advocacy community deserves no small degree of credit for securing that support from Congress.