Can Country Ownership Work?

Can Country Ownership Work?

“Songs brought by foreigners do not last long at the dance.”  So goes a Kenyan proverb that supports the concept that countries should own their development. The development community knows this, but we aren’t yet making it happen on a broad scale. On the opening day of the Global Health Council conference last week, Management Sciences for Health (MSH) teamed up with Oxfam America to host a panel on country ownership and how to successfully achieve it.

To a standing room only audience the panelists from civil society, NGOs, local government, and US government discussed country ownership models from a varied perspectives. Highlights from the interesting conversation are below:

Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America’s Vice President for policy, said that the US government now realizes that its international development work is uncoordinated, but before we make improvements, we have to look at what we’ve learned in the past 60 years of this work. NGOs, he said, can facilitate country ownership by (1) giving people the information they need to make decisions about their own development, (2) transferring skills—not through endless workshops, but through local systems—to implement those decisions, and (3) ultimately letting go of the money and the power.

Dr. Francisco Songane, a former minister of health in Mozambique, argued that that governments in developing countries need to provide a clear vision and opportunity for NGOs and other organizations working in their countries for creating local ownership. The strategy for this has to be part of the overall health development strategy.

Dr. Zipporah Mang Kpamor, chief of the Nigerian Indigenous Capacity Building Project, argued that as governments change, support for development strategies also change, so we shouldn’t confuse government ownership with country ownership. Strategies for country ownership should come from a broad range of stakeholders and they should be institutionalized so they aren’t subject to political winds.

Dr. Sin Somuny, executive director of a network of health NGOs in Cambodia, said there must be solidarity among government groups and civil society groups. Donor aid must be more coordinated—more predictable and streamlined—to foster this solidarity. And civil society, which is generally underappreciated, he argued, must be responsible for informing and implementing government policy, as well as filling the gaps left by it. Civil society must also serve as a bridge between communities and governments, advocating for communities and empowering them to hold governments accountable.

Warren “Buck” Buckingham, director of country support for PEPFAR, said country ownership will happen differently in different places, but the US government is newly focused on developing partnerships among stakeholders—both within and outside the US—that will foster more effective care. In some cases this might take more money, but it will most often require only seeing with new eyes. However, government initiatives alone won’t work, he said; sustained advocacy on the part of many stakeholders—facilitated by a free press—is critically important. All development partners must build capacity in health advocacy.

MSH’s CEO Dr. Jonathan Quick closed the event by reminding the audience that this conversation wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago – there has been remarkable progress in global development; and a renewed emphasis to “get it right”.   From the Obama Administration to the US Congress, country owned and locally lead is the goal. 

MSH believes that to make country ownership work there must be an investment in people and systems.   We hire locally in the countries where we work because it builds local capacity.  To achieve true country ownership an investment must be made to strengthen and engage governments as well as organizations across all levels and sectors in working together to strengthen health systems.

Watch a recording of the event here.

Laura Sider-Jost is the Communications Associate at Management Sciences for Health.