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Focusing On Small-Scale, ‘Hyper-Local’ Activities More Effective Than Traditional Aid Models

In this Atlantic opinion piece, Joshua Foust, an author and a fellow at the American Security Project, examines the use of a non-traditional aid model known as the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) in Pakistan, where “heavy rains and devastating flooding … displaced upwards of 20 million people” in July 2010. Though USAID “is very good at quickly mobilizing assistance,” including medical, shelter, food, and water aid, “to disaster-afflicted communities, it carries a lot of political baggage — so much so in places like Pakistan that the U.S might be better off in the long run by downsizing USAID’s direct activities there and working through alternative programs,” he writes. Therefore, “the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a consortium of NGOs that work in Pakistan, … submitted an official request to the U.S. government to re-brand their aid” as a result of political tension, according to Foust, who notes the RSPN, founded by the Agha Khan Network in 1982, “reach[es] millions of the poorest homes across a vast swath of Pakistan.”

He writes, “RSPN has a different focus than normal aid programs,” as “[t]hey emphasize the development of institutions first, and only after that institution is established do they worry about its output or performance”; they “heavily [invest] in the smallest scale of the community, from conceptualization to execution, hiring mostly locals to administer projects”; and “they have extraordinarily long project timelines — sometimes as long as 15 years from start to finish.” He concludes, “If anything, what the RSPN shows is that focusing on the small scale, and on the hyper-local, is actually a more effective way of developing isolated, poor, rural communities. … Aid agencies would do well to focus on the small, on the achievable, and on the local — and leave the enormous symbol construction to the local governments” (4/30).