The way in which aid is delivered is critical to its impact on reducing poverty and increasing poor people’s access to services. Aid is more effective when the development of policies, plans and their implementation, and budgets are led by the partner country not the donor. This strengthens ownership, the first principle of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Ownership requires concerted effort by all donors and the partner country or institution to transfer power and enhance accountability. It involves both ‘camps’ letting go the old ways of working.

Over the last 11 months or so, I have witnessed an impressive transformation process for the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) as it implements its first ever 5-year National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS). It is incredible what NISR have so far achieved with only around half of the staffing complement. In the past NISR struggled to follow the pace of its development partners in terms of planning and executing the agreed plans and budget. In a twist of circumstances, the development partners seem to be struggling to follow NISR’s pace. Besides the tremendous support from donors and the government, it took committed leadership that ‘sees’ where NISR needs to be and a resolve to ‘pay the price’ to get there.

The price tag: stronger accountability and letting go

NISR had an earlier strategic plan (2007-2010) that was implemented through pooled funding by DFID, EU and UNDP. The Basket Fund was managed by UNDP on behalf of other donors. There were lots of issues with absorption capacity of funds and effective implementation of projects and activities. The key problem in my view was a kind of laisser-faire approach to management that failed to effectively challenge poor performance and ineffective behaviour, and an inability to adequately manage talent. The turnover was high and some of the most experienced staff tended to be ‘poached’. NISR restructured and increased its staffing complements from 50 to 100. The new management took the bull by the horns. Status quo was no longer an option: accountability was strengthened despite some internal resistance.

Ownership came with a price tag for some donors too: letting go of their ‘power’ to drive their agenda. When the NSDS was approved, a new Basket Fund was set up to support its implementation. A critical decision was made: NISR (not UNDP) would manage the Basket Fund. It so happened that UNDP would not put its resources into the new Basket Fund. The reason – their policy for pooling funds is that UNDP or another UN agency has to manage the pooled funding. The World Bank (WB) indicated formally that it would be joining in early 2010, but as yet the basket fund has not received any financial support from them. In my view, their struggle was that the WB’s decision-making seemed to be centralised in Washington and NISR lacked an interlocutor on the ground with delegated authority to move the process forward.

At times, NISR’s momentum was frustrated by the slow response from donors. The NSDS was underfunded and NISR spent a lot of time negotiating with some donors on what had been already agreed instead of delivering. Eventually, the WB decided to ‘decentralise’ the Task Team Leader position for our programme from a Washington-based staff to a Rwanda-based one. Things seem to be moving faster now and NISR may see the colour of WB money before the end of this year.

I concluded that letting go of ‘old’ habits and ways of doing things was the greatest impediment to effective ownership.

Biting the bullet to make it happen: some success stories

With the money from the WB not coming, and the need to procure vehicles that were needed for the preparatory activities for the Population and Housing Census, a mega operation that covers all households in the country and occurs every 10 years, NISR devised a plan B. The EU agreed that NISR could use its resources to buy these vehicles. This was important as some US$ 1 million was tied with our executing fully the previous allocation. And these vehicles had to be delivered by 31 December 2010 to meet the EU requirements. It was practically impossible to go through the normal open tendering process and get the vehicles by that deadline. Failing to absorb these resources would affect future disbursements next year and NISR had huge funding gaps. NISR decided to go unconventional – make a case for a waiver to single source, got approval from the relevant authorities, and negotiated hard with the supplier. On 30 December 2010, all the 20 vehicles were parked in NISR compound and the cheque paid. NISR is still dealing with challenges from disgruntled vehicle dealers (rightly so) but I am still convinced that it was the right decision for the public interest.

Another success story relates to the fourth Demographic and Health Survey (DHS4). UNICEF was funding the lion’s share of the DHS4 project. In my meeting with UNICEF shortly after I joined NISR, I was informed that NISR was not properly accounting for advances received and this would lead to freezing further disbursements if not addressed by November 2010. NISR had not even drawn 20% of the budget at that time. This would bring to a halt the survey – and both UNICEF and NISR would be seriously in trouble. I could identify very well with the situation UNICEF was in as I used to manage project resources when I was working with DFID. It was frustrating to have to ‘lose’ funds that were meant to improve the lives of the poorest of my fellow citizens just because some official did not do what he or she was paid to do.

Two months later, the inevitable almost happened. I received an urgent email from UNICEF informing me that the funds would be frozen the following day. NISR needed to have accounted for all the advances and request the remaining balance. I had been led to believe that this had been already sorted. A crisis meeting was convened at NISR and UNICEF was invited. We eventually reached a compromise that somehow ‘humiliated’ the acting Director General. I explained to her the cruel dilemma: she accepts the terrible responsibility or the DHS4 stops. She bit the bullet and personally committed in writing to clearing all outstanding balances and holding monthly meetings between UNICEF and NISR. In exchange, UNICEF disbursed the final tranche even before we had fully cleared the previous advances. This required great flexibility from UNICEF and acknowledgement of our responsibility in the failure to comply. Just a few months afterwards, NISR was reporting a zero balance to UNICEF, and in June 2011, we released the preliminary results for the DHS4 that showed fantastic progress against health indicators over the last 5 years or so. On reflection, although the ‘ownership’ price was very high for both UNICEF and NISR, it was a price worth paying.