A woman eats rice a on a street in Rangoon

A woman eats rice a on a street in Rangoon / AFP PHOTO, Nicolas Asfouri

The international development discourse has evolved considerably during the past few years. The 2011 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan emphasized the importance of a more inclusive approach to development. In the time leading up to  and following Busan, increased attention has been placed on such terms as “use of country systems,” “localized aid,” “accountability,” and “sustainability.”

USAID has institutionalized these themes into the USAID Forward reforms, which translate the terms into a new model of development.  In the words of our Administrator, “(this new model) places a greater emphasis on direct partnerships with local-change agents who have invaluable in-country, knowledge, networks, and expertise.” The just issued “Local Systems: A Framework for Supporting Sustained Development” underscores the shift in our approach and will serve as a key tool for implementing the Agency’s mission of partnering “to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies.”

Indian farmers plant paddy saplings in a field at Milanmore village, on the outskirts of Siliguri / AFP Photo, Diptendu Dutta

Indian farmers plant paddy saplings in a field at Milanmore village, on the outskirts of Siliguri / AFP Photo, Diptendu Dutta

The Framework defines a local system as those “interconnected sets of actors – governments, civil society, the private sector, universities, individual citizens and others – that jointly produce a particular development outcome.” The emphasis on systems reflects a recognition that the results we seek to achieve emerge from the ways numerous actors act and interact in a dynamic environment. Thus to eradicate extreme poverty in a country or region, it is not enough to work with an individual ministry or a particular service provider; rather, poverty will decrease as laws and social customs change, as economic and educational opportunities become more available, and as the voices of the poor become part of the political discourse.

For an external actor like USAID to contribute to the eradication of extreme poverty, we must understand the five “R’s” that govern the system we are trying to affect and to design programs accordingly:

  • Local systems transform resources, such as budgetary allocations, into outputs;
  • Local systems include a number of actors who assume defined roles as producers, consumers, funder, advocate and others;
  • The interactions among the actors in a local system establish various types of relationships, including commercial, administrative and hierarchical;
  • An important feature of local systems is the set of rules that govern them, which define roles, determine the nature of relationships and establish the terms of access to resources; and
  • The concept of results includes measures of the overall strength of the local systems, as well as traditional outputs and outcomes.

While systems-thinking has gained traction within the development community in recent years, the Framework represents the first explicit donor explication of a systems-based approach to implementing development programs. Equally important, the Framework reinforces the importance of focusing on sustainable outcomes and accountability as mechanisms for reducing the risk that scarce taxpayer resources are squandered on programs that do not further long-term development objectives.

The ten principles articulated in the Framework for engaging local systems incorporate many of the themes being discussed under the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) rubric, which has been promoted through a series of recent publications and conferences.  Particularly important for TWP advocates is the use of political economy analysis to understand the institutional constraints impeding development within a particular local system and the importance of iterative approaches to project design and implementation.

Following the Busan forum, more than 50 countries and organizations created the Effective Institutions Platform, which is implementing, under the leadership of USAID and the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI), a pilot project designed to promote country dialogues for using and strengthening local systems. The inspiration for this effort, which was presented at a focus session of the recently concluded Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation High-Level Meeting, derives primarily from the ideas and approaches articulated in the Framework.

Publication of the Framework signals the Obama’s Administration success in restoring USAID as a premier development agency capable of promoting thought leadership on critical topics and mobilizing the Agency and the international community to act as a result.  Similar examples can be seen with our establishment of the U.S. Global Development Lab to institutionalize the roles of science, technology and innovation as drivers of development and our work on discrete policy issues, including extreme poverty, resilience and climate change.


Larry Garber is a Senior Advisor in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning