Wait! Who Owns This?


“Ownership” is a big word in development. The concept is meant to demonstrate that development organizations are accountable to beneficiary governments and communities, and that beneficiaries drive the design and implementation of development programs. Establishing ownership has become a measure of donor success, and many a reporting officer has learned to massage it subtly into reports. But it is really difficult to make this idea work in practice.

In theory, ownership should result in the sustainability of development program results. Increasingly, this is not the case for a number of reasons.

First, if a development program targets local governments or communities as the primary beneficiary, then that beneficiary should drive the program. However, due to the structure of development aid, it is usually an actor within the central government (such as a ministry or specific department) who is the legal “owner” of a project, with final decision-making authority. This actor is largely absent from program implementation, and decisions are thus made without taking into account local realities – constraints, resources, history, cultural practices, etc. The results are therefore a by-product of central decision making, and as the program was never owned by the beneficiary to begin with, are unlikely to be sustained once the program has phased-out. One option to ensure ownership at a local level is to review how aid agreements are drafted, or set up a program board/committee to allow for co-chairing by central AND local governments.

Second, even when the direct beneficiary of a development program has a decision-making role in program implementation, this does not always guarantee the sustainability of results. Significantly, even if the intended results of a program are vetted and well-received by the beneficiary, the beneficiary may be looking for gains beyond the specified results. For example, significant resources are put towards community-based infrastructure such as nursery schools, community centers, women’s associations, local markets and small enterprises that also carry the promise of ongoing benefits to a community. Thus, while the program results themselves are positive, a second tier of engagement by the development partner may be required to foster continued ownership. This does not need to be monetary; such a practice would contradict the concept of increasing resilience and reducing aid dependence. Practical examples of second tier engagement such as linking small enterprises with regional or national markets, creating partnerships with other women’s organizations globally, or providing access to scholarships and learning opportunities can facilitate opportunities for continued local ownership long after a development initiative has operationally closed.

Lastly, there will always be an issue of an alignment of priorities. Local governments and communities prioritize development initiatives through community discussions and planning processes, while donors and development organizations have larger agendas with specific priorities and goals. While these priorities sometimes align easily, more often than not the priorities of the beneficiary must be altered to meet the requirements of donors or align with international agendas. But if the objectives of the program do not explicitly respond to beneficiary priorities and are not grounded in beneficiary experiences and knowledge, beneficiary ownership of the program will be superficial at best. Fortunately, donors and development agencies are increasingly implementing more flexible funding arrangements, which allow for better-targeted, more locally-responsive development programs. The challenge is to ensure that sufficient time and human resources are committed so that beneficiary knowledge is incorporated into the design and implementation of activities, and that the intended results of a project are appropriate for the local context, and not just for a broader agenda.

Many established practices governing how development programs are implemented present hurdles to true beneficiary ownership of the initiatives. However, as noted above, not all hurdles are insurmountable. A little innovation and ingenuity can go a long way to facilitating the sustainability of results and fostering longer-term impacts. It’s a matter of looking more closely at what ownership means in a given context and how it is being hindered, and doing more than paying it lip-service as a concept in proposals and progress reports.

Kanava International