USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Self-Reliance

The Nature of Self-Reliance: Charting 20 Years of USAID’s Work in Community Enterprises and Conservation

This summer is an exciting time for me—how often does a donor get to go back and see what happened 20 years after support ended? I’ve spent a significant part of the last two years working on an evaluation of USAID’s conservation enterprise investments.

Conservation enterprises are community businesses that generate income for rural communities and conserve nature at the same time. Going back to a site after 20 years is a pretty rare opportunity in the development world and one that provided a lot of lessons about how and why our efforts to improve community self-reliance work, or don’t, and what we need to do to improve the chance for success.

To compare approaches at six different USAID-funded sites, we worked through our assumptions about how our actions would lead to results. In short, we think that if the right conditions are in place and people receive benefits from the enterprises, then their attitudes and behavior toward conservation will change, which will reduce threats and ultimately conserve nature. Maybe money really can grow on trees!

A woman sorts plants for processing and sale

By setting up their own community based sorting and processing ‘bodega’ for xate, palm fronds used in many flower arrangements, the community of Uaxactún, Guatemala, has converted a very low value resource to a more value-added one. But more importantly, this effort has created an opportunity for a majority of the families in the community to earn a better basic base income. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID

The good news is that the enterprises are still operating at all of the sites. At some of the sites, we could see how people’s lives have changed because they make money from well-managed forests.

More girls have been able to go to school, more people have rights to their resources, and more people are very proud of their forests.

A row of jars of various kinds of jams and jellies

‘Mountain Fresh’ products, a brand of the Kalahan Educational Foundation, is part of and distributed by the Federation of Peoples’ Sustainable Development Cooperative in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID

We saw first-hand how the more valuable the product, the more difficult it is to navigate competing interests and ensure access rights. In the Philippines, almacega is used to make resins and is burned as incense. Managing who has access to these forests and rights to harvest it has often led to conflict.

Two hands holding a chunk of resin

Almacega (Agathis philippinensis) resin is a valuable natural resource important to indigenous people of Palawan, Philippines. Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID

The role that visionary local leadership plays was evident at each site—they all had leaders who could inspire people and lead through conflict and change.

At all of the sites, though, I learned that more expertise is needed to measure and monitor progress so we can connect what we do with what really happens for impact. Also, as a project planner at a large donor institution, I need to find a way to allow more time to get to results—they don’t magically appear in a five-year funding period. It was satisfying to see how sustainable conservation enterprises can generate income for people that depend closely on the land and lead to multiple benefits like education, health and security.

A woman carries a bundle n her back

Producing Lokta bark paper at Malika Handmade Paper Pvt. Ltd. in the remote mountain town of Kailas, Bajhang District, Nepal. The process involves collecting Lokta (Daphne spp) bark, soaking it in a caustic bath, pulping it in a manual beater, pouring the pulp onto screens and drying it in the sun. The paper is then carried in 50 kilogram bundles on a four hour hike about 2,000 meters down the mountain to Chainpur where it is loaded on buses for the 1,000 kilometer, 25 hour journey to Kathmandu. Kailas, Bajhang District, Nepal. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID

I saw examples of how courageous people like Felisa Navas Pérez in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala stood up to illegal loggers after they killed the community president’s son—because she thought they would be less likely to murder a woman.

A woman stands outside a workshop

Felisa Navas Pérez is the president of the the Asociación Forestal Integral Cruce la Colorada (AFICC) in Carmilita, Guatemala. She stepped up and assumed the leadership role after a former president was murdered and no one else wanted the job. The AFICC sawmill in Carmelita sustainably harvests mahogany and other timber from its community forest concession. Carmelita was the first concession in the region 20 years ago and is looking towards renewing its contract with the government in five years. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID

This retrospective evaluation helped show me how valuable it is to go back to project sites and learn from the experiences of our partners, and that building local self-reliance catalyzes a virtuous cycle of benefits that flow from businesses to people to forests, and then back again.

A panorama of a misty rainforest with a temple in the foreground

Surveys show that deforestation rates in community concessions are lower than in surrounding protected areas. A survey of six active community concessions in 2017 revealed that on average, each enterprise had 13 full-time and 49 part-time employees. Tikal, Guatemala. Photograph Jason Houston for USAID.


Megan Hill is an Environment Protection Specialist in USAID’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity

Mapping the Journey to Self-Reliance

A woman rides a motorbike on a dirt road through a forest

Habiba Suleiman, 29, has been a district malaria surveillance officer for two years. Here, she leaves her home to head to Shakani village as a part of her work for the USAID-supported Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Program. Using a tablet, phone and motorcycle provided by the program, she is able to quickly respond to cases of malaria, test family members and neighbors, and record this information on a surveillance system. Her work in preventing and treating malaria is helping eradicate the disease from the island.
Morgana Wingard, USAID

“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”
-Earl Nightingale

After nearly nine months of work, hundreds of consultations, and more spreadsheets than you can imagine, USAID has unveiled one of the key pieces of the journey to self-reliance, a cornerstone of USAID’s Transformation effort: the self-reliance metrics.

At its core, the journey to self-reliance is about how we can best realize our overarching goal as an Agency: ending the need for foreign assistance. To do this, we need to bring a strong, country-focused approach to how we “do” development. We need to be able to assess each of our partner countries’ individual abilities to plan, finance and implement solutions to solve their own development challenges—what we call “self-reliance”—and re-orient our partnerships accordingly.

Whether countries are emerging from conflict, or experiencing steady development progress, our goal should always be the same: building self-reliance in each of our partner countries.

Eugene Jasmin, in pink shirt, 39, and his employees work on furniture at Eugene’s carpentry workshop. Their lives have all changed thanks to a power plant that USAID helped build in their northern region of Haiti. 
David Rochkind, USAID

But how does one even begin assessing something as complex as “self-reliance?”

Well, for starters, we know that self-reliance is a journey—for some, that journey will not be too long; for others, it may take decades. And these journeys are complex—they are rarely linear, nor are they determined by just one thing.

To better support our partner countries, we realized we needed a map of sorts—something to aid our countries (and us!) in understanding what helps and hinders them along their individual journeys to self-reliance. Over the past nine months, a USAID team has been working with a wide range of experts both inside and outside the Agency to help figure out how to build what we will be calling “Self-Reliance Country Roadmaps.”

Our roadmaps will use 17 high-level, third-party metrics to paint the picture of a country’s position on its overall journey to self-reliance. Seven “commitment” indicators measure the range of policy choices, actions and behaviors that enable a country to drive its own development journey, and 10 “capacity” measures tell us how far along the development spectrum a country has come.

Together, these two groups of metrics indicate how close or far a country is from strong self-reliance overall. When we look at the metrics individually, we can see how close or far the country is on each particular issue that underpins a country’s ability to be self-reliant. This, in turn, will help shed light on where a country’s strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to self-reliance, and where to potentially focus and/or re-orient our partnerships.

It’s important to note that no map is perfect—sometimes it’s out of date, or doesn’t show you enough detail to actually make it to your final destination. Our roadmaps and metrics won’t be perfect either. This is why they are meant to be a starting point: a way to begin not only understanding our partner countries’ respective journeys to self-reliance, but also where, at a high-level, we need to take a closer look.

As a result, we will continually update and improve our roadmaps over time. It is also important to understand that these roadmaps and metrics will simply be one element—albeit an important one—as we begin to reorient ourselves towards self-reliance.

By early fall, we plan to have Self-Reliance Country Roadmaps available for almost every low- and middle-income country. At the outset, this new, broader self-reliance approach is being tested with a handful of countries. And the new USAID Policy Framework we anticipate releasing in the fall will establish self-reliance as central to our Agency’s overall policy approach.

So there’s a lot going on! Stay tuned as our journey evolves over the coming year—we look forward to engaging with you on this exciting new approach.

To learn more about these metrics, I encourage you to visit our Self-Reliance Metrics webpage.


Chris Maloney is a Senior Advisor in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning and Deputy Coordinator of the Agency’s Transformation Task Team.