Traveling in rural Arkansas, you can sometimes forget where you are. The long stretch of bumpy highway, surrounded by cotton fields and rice paddies, could be in one of a dozen countries I’ve traveled to recently. And, unfortunately, the poor families I met could have been from any of those countries too—rather than living in the richest country on earth. The kind of poverty you find these days in America is shocking, and it makes me wonder what’s happened to cause so many families to be left behind.
September 25, 2012
2008 Malita Chimwemwe was six-years-old living in the remote village of
Mayaka. Her family was hit by chronic poverty and HIV/AIDs. Malita
was in first grade at the local primary school but was speech-impaired. She was
lucky; her village was part of Save the Children’s early childhood development
(ECD) sponsorship program and through this program, Malita attended a
community-based center where she was given speech training. Government-supported
community health workers provided Malita’s family with medical
In Malawi needs such as Malita’s are widespread. One
child in eight dies before reaching five years due to poor health or
nutrition. Most Malawian mothers have to carry their children on
their backs for long distances to seek health care. Free primary
education is offered in Malawi but face declining standards and high drop-out
rates. Malawi’s government needs and welcomes donor support, but U.S.
government-funded programs, including those aimed at reducing poverty, have not
always aligned with Malawi’s needs at the community level.
Requirements set in Washington– such as congressional earmarks
and global targets –have at times constrained the ability of the U.S.
government, the national government and partners in country to address Malawi’s
community health and education needs. Over 80 percent of U.S.
foreign assistance funds are directed to specific programs before they hit the
country level. Pre-determined funding allocations often undermine
the ability of the U.S. government and partners to provide assistance when,
where and how it is most needed.
the Children Malawi has been involved in a new USAID initiative that is trying
to change this and better connect U.S. foreign aid decisions to local needs and
priorities. As part of its “Forward Initiative,”
the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is creating a five-year
Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) in Malawi to increase
country-driven programming. Working closely with host country
governments and citizens, civil society organizations, other donors and U.S.
government agencies, CDCSs are being developed at the majority of USAID’s
country and regional missions worldwide. A goal of the CDCS process
is to actively take into account the rights and interests of the country’s
citizens. In Malawi, this means a
greater sensitivity to the development needs of citizens at the community level,
positively impacting more vulnerable children like Malita. Seventeen CDCSs have been approved so far,
with a total of 73 expected to be completed by the end of 2013.
Community consultation is not new to
USAID, but what’s different about the CDCS process in Malawi has been the depth
and reach of these consultations. For example, earlier this year,
USAID partnered with the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College to convene
citizen groups across the country at the national, district, and village level,
in order to capture the voices of a wide range of people.
This process is also expected to inform the government of Malawi’s own
programs, policies and services, leading to better country-led development over
The CDCS process in
Malawi is still underway. If
the initiative moves ahead as planned, and the people’s voices are listened
to, U.S. development budgets and resource allocations in Malawi will be
driven more by localized strategies and plans developed by Malawi’s
citizens than by a top-down approach out of Washington. This is not just a matter of principle, but of impact. When local communities and governments have a
sense of ownership over development, they invest their own energy and resources
to make it successful.
the CDCS process to accomplish its purpose, CDCS consultations should be broad
and deep in all countries and involve communities, government, and other
development stakeholders. USAID missions in the other countries must create
opportunities for genuine engagement at the community level and potential for
influencing national government priorities – as in Malawi.
Aligning the U.S.
government’s poverty reduction and community development efforts with the needs
and priorities of Malawi’s citizens will lead to better futures for not only
thousands of children like Malita, but for the nation as a whole.
2008 a Malawi government official said, “If each country was given a chance to
really prioritize what it wants, then we could make a difference in
poverty”. With this new U.S. government strategic planning and
budgeting approach, Malita Chimwemwe and other citizens in Malawi may have a
greater voice in their fight against poverty. Today, as Malita moves
to grade four, she can look at her future with more hope
and confidence that her voice and that of her community will be heard.