A New Front for Foreign Aid
Late last month, President Trump released a budget that proposed radical cuts to U.S. foreign aid spending. While his spending proposals are unlikely to be passed into law, they tapped into a longstanding debate about whether and how U.S. dollars should be used in pursuit of diplomatic and humanitarian goals.
In the U.S. and around the world, hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid are spent on projects ranging from public health to education to basic infrastructure. These investments save lives, improve well-being, and help to put countries on more promising, peaceful paths.
But we also know that some international development work simply doesn’t “stick” as it might. We’ve all heard stories of projects in countries ranging from Haiti to Afghanistan that prove unsustainable, poorly matched with the needs and values of local people, or financially wasteful. Anecdotes of this nature unfairly color broader perceptions of foreign aid’s overall effectiveness and reduce public support.
Elevating an underutilized strategy alongside effective approaches could help minimize projects that underperform, while building local capacity for driving positive change over time, above and beyond a program’s direct goals.
That strategy is centered on an intentional effort — and concurrent investments — to develop local, long-term leadership capacity in communities grappling with complex, entrenched challenges.
Today, broadly speaking, the global community’s dominant approach is largely focused on outside experts replicating research-based, data-driven interventions in communities, though often there is little evidence of these interventions’ impact across diverse contexts.
As a complementary counterpart to this approach, we must begin discussing, developing, and funding intentional efforts to cultivate local leadership that can play a more meaningful role in addressing systemic challenges sustainably and in their full complexity.
To be clear, leadership as we define it here doesn’t necessarily mean an individual positioned at the top of the hierarchy in government or business. Leadership can come from anyone and is defined by actions that are oriented towards improving the well-being of the community.
In our work at Teach For All, we define teaching as leadership, work to foster student leadership, and believe that leadership among parents, policymakers, social entrepreneurs, advocates, and people working inside and outside education is crucial to progress.
If the international development community can identify effective ways to lay pathways for local actors to access the footholds and support they need to exercise leadership within their communities and countries, a diverse range of local stakeholders can gain the resources, opportunity, and skills to work collaboratively to identify and implement solutions to social and economic challenges that fit their unique contexts.
Around the Teach For All network, which includes Teach For America and independent organizations in 44 other countries that share its approach, we have seen the impact that creating just one type of leadership pathway — a two year commitment to teaching, complemented by a range of supports — can lead to.
In the city of Pune, India, for example, one of Teach For India’s alumni is leading a coalition of public and private sector actors who have created a strategic plan for improving the school system. Several other alumni are leading a revolution in teacher development, overseeing new programs that are providing professional development to thousands of government school teachers who would otherwise never have access to it. Still others are working to open at least 20 English secondary schools to ensure all students in Pune’s English medium primary schools will also have access to a secondary school education.
Without Teach For India as a pathway to mission-driven leadership for expanding opportunity for kids, alumni like these might never have found a way into this work. According to our surveys, the vast majority of those who join one of our 45 organizations do not plan to remain in education when they begin the program. However, the experience of teaching with a cohort of others, alongside investments in leadership development, often fundamentally changes their perspectives. Program alumni come to see the complex challenges that face their students and their schools, see first-hand the incredible potential of all children to succeed when met with high expectations and provided with necessary support — and gain a sense of urgency and conviction for fighting the range of inequities they see holding their students back.
Across our network organizations, 60 to 70 percent of those who complete their teaching commitment remain in education — as teachers, principals, district leaders, advocates, researchers, social innovators, and still others work from other fields to promote equity and well-being in marginalized communities.
While it is too early to see systemic impact in many of our newer partners, in many of the U.S. cities that are seeing rapid improvement in educational outcomes — Chicago, New Orleans, Oakland, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles — Teach For America alums have played a range of leadership roles that have been instrumental to unlocking progress. In these cities, Teach For America alumni comprise high percentages of teachers, principals, policymakers, and local innovators who have helped to make progress possible.
Working to develop pathways to unleash local leadership may seem to lack guaranteed success. It doesn’t necessarily prescribe specific answers to immediate problems, or enable the implementation of programs designed to directly tackle complex social and economic challenges. And it is not one in which results are immediate or necessarily even visible over the near term.
But there is no other path for making progress in living standards and overall well-being at the accelerated pace we all hope for. Done right, investments in local leadership almost certainly represent the largest opportunity we have to make sustainable progress at a significantly larger scale than we’re seeing today.
Local, mission-driven leaders are ultimately the ones who have the knowledge and values necessary to contextualize solutions and harness the diversity within their communities to innovate on proven practices. They are also best positioned to drive day-to-day progress and ensure it is sustainable over the years. The global development community should step up and focus on finding and funding innovative new ways to develop many more of them.