Susan Reichle is the Assistant to the Administrator for USAID’s Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning. Photo Credit: USAID.

This post originally appeared in The Guardian.

“No country wants to be dependent on another. No proud leader in this room wants to ask for aid. No family wants to be beholden to the assistance of other … But aid alone is not development. Development is helping nations to actually develop – moving from poverty to prosperity.”

These words from President Barack Obama on 22 September 2010 at the United Nations embody the changes underway at USAid as we reform the way we engage in development. For a while we have known that development takes time, evidence demonstrates that our resources are best spent when we invest in strengthening the host country institutions so that they can stand on their own. This does not only mean working directly with governments so that they become the ‘owners’ of their future but with local civil society, the private sector and others as well. This has not always been the case.

As USAid and development came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the agency utilised both large scale projects to address development challenges, and placed USAid staff in host country ministries and local organisations to stimulate reform. In the 1980s, we shifted some of our resources to ‘non-project assistance’ by conditioning support to host country governments on their adoption of policy reform in specific sectors. The 1990s brought a period of downsizing for USAid during which significant staff reductions shifted resources towards institutional contractors and NGOs with whom we partnered to achieve development results.

Palestinians unload bags of flour donated by USAid at a depot in the West Bank village of Anin near Jenin. Photo Credit: Mohammed Ballas/AP.

In 2005, the international development community endorsed the Paris Agenda for Aid Effectiveness. Three years later in Accra, Ghana, the international community once again put country ownership high on the agenda to move the needle of development. Just a year ago in Busan, South Korea, the international community recognised that all development actors, including the private sector and emerging donors, were critical to ensuring resources were aligned behind host country priorities to achieve development impact.

Since taking office, USAid administrator Rajiv Shah has initiated a series of reforms under USAid Forward to create new approaches to development by working directly through local systems to improve sustainable results.

This transition to localise aid means that we will be testing a host country’s ability to “use their own pipes” – whether that is a government ministry or civil society. While this approach comes with its own set of challenges, it requires a change in mindset – from both inside and outside USAid – which includes a willingness to manage and mitigate risk and to focus on the long term.

The challenges notwithstanding, I am optimistic that these reforms to USAid’s development model will succeed. They began three years ago when officers around the globe called on the to develop a business model that embraced aid effectiveness. We had demand from below as well as from senior leadership at the top. This occurred at the same time as the international community was calling for local ownership and country system strengthening. The stars were truly aligned.

At the time, the agency was in the middle of almost doubling the size of its foreign service. This allowed more officers to engage directly with host country counterparts in government, civil society and the private sector. Given that the majority of the foreign service officers now have fewer than five years in USAid, we had fresh eyes and energy to undertake new approaches to development.

We developed new diagnostic tools to mitigate risk, created planning rubrics to ensure that we choose capable and appropriate institutions as partners and invest in high quality evaluations, which we feed back into project design and implementation. This emphasis has changed the way we do business. For example, we seek to strengthen a country’s health system even as we work intensively with partners to deliver medicine. Similarly, we engage in policy dialogue to achieve systemic education reform while constructing schools in conflict zones across the world.

In the end, we believe that this new way of doing business is an opportunity. It gives us tighter focus on local systems as well as a broader reach to engage more citizens, which, we hope, will result in more sustainable outcomes and proficient use of taxpayer dollars. Just as you would trust a new driver to take the wheel in order to learn how to drive, we must trust our host country partners to drive their own results.

This trust comes with responsibility and requires a commitment by host countries to transparency. Citizen activism, open government and true partnership are key ingredients to strengthening country systems which ultimately moves countries from poverty to prosperity.

Susan Reichle is assistant to the administrator at USAid