Lessons Learned and Recommendations in Supporting a Local Organization’s Transition to USAID Partner
As practitioners in the development community often quip, our ultimate goal is to work ourselves right out of a job. USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance initiative claims to want to do just that by working to reach “a time when foreign assistance is no longer necessary.” Yet, while many practitioners and donors talk about the concept, opportunities to work yourself out of a job are rare. Plan International USA recently had such an opportunity in Guatemala.
Plan takes the idea of local capacity building seriously. One of this blog’s authors is the Co-Chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a coalition that has written and advocated extensively for local capacity and ownership. In its recent publication, “Principles and Recommendations for a Strategy on Engaging Local Civil Society” MFAN offers “invest in local civil society actors” as a guiding principle, going on to explain that USAID funding should “increase their operational capacity and elevate their profile in-country.”
Putting our commitment to local ownership into practice by supporting the strengthening of a local partner in Guatemala, the Fundación para la Alimentación y Nutrición de Centroamérica y Panama (FANCAP) was not just of strategic importance but a moral imperative. Plan has been implementing the HIV Sustainability and Human Rights for Central America Project since 2018, a regional cooperative agreement funded by USAID with PEPFAR funds. In early 2020, USAID issued a special 18-month fixed amount award to FANCAP, transitioning to become USAID’s implementing partner for this project. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global lock-downs, including every country in the region and the U.S., created new challenges. Ultimately, however, it did not slow down the effort. In fact, in some cases, the pandemic-instigated lock-downs strengthened the project’s and FANCAP’s ability to work virtually – essential to managing an agile regional effort.
Over the year, Plan’s effort to transition our work to FANCAP entailed sessions on operational and technical areas of work, facilitating coordination meetings with external partners, and providing supplemental written technical guidance and digital resource materials. The transfer of project activities to FANCAP while strengthening FANCAP’s capacity to work effectively as a USAID implementing partner was complicated and complex; we learned that operationalizing oft-lauded concepts like local ownership and capacity building is never a linear process. Here are some key lessons learned and recommendations to further guide USAID and implementing partners on supporting local organizations worldwide to manage USAID funding.
- Clear communication and expectations. The transition process for local organizations can mean something different to all actors involved. There is no set formula or list of activities that can be followed to best prepare a local organization to manage USAID funding; rather, USAID and implementing partners must be flexible in their expectations of the level of effort and nature of support provided to local partners. For example, a local organization may initially anticipate needing extensive operational support from the implementing partner. But as the work progresses, initial expectations on areas of need and support will inevitably change. Open dialogue and clear communication remain critical to adjusting roles and responsibilities, including ensuring a deep level of understanding and buy-in from USAID counterparts. The transition process proves to be more of an art than a science.
- The value of collaboration beyond learning. Just like in one’s educational career, much of the growth and development happens outside of the classroom. Yes, there remains a great value for workshops, training, and validated curricula, yet informal spaces and opportunities for engagement, sharing, and coaching should not be overlooked. Local organizations can learn a lot from mentorship between staff members, impromptu conversations, and interactive meetings that enable real-time exchange and learning. Some of this was made more difficult due to pandemic restrictions, but we found ways to continue to create those informal exchange spaces through more virtual means.
- Local expertise and guidance. Beyond the expertise and experience that USAID and its implementing partners bring to the table, ultimately, the local organization is best able to identify its needs, knowing its context and internal priorities. Even with the best intentions, if USAID or the implementing partner set the transition agenda, imposing any activities or timeframes, they will likely not be effective as they lack the local organization’s buy-in. The local organization truly needs to be the leader of the transition process.
- Demand-driven priorities. The general development principles of inclusion and participation should be applied to supporting local organizations in the transition process, with the clients driving the process. The local organization needs to be engaged at every stage of the process, starting with a participatory consultation or assessment to determine their key needs and priorities (staff, research, equipment, training, development of materials, processes, etc.). This assessment should welcome contributions beyond the categories enumerated within USAID’s Non-U.S. Organization Pre-Award Survey (NUPAS). USAID, the implementing partner, and the local organization, should create a plan based on the identified need, with clear success metrics. If the local organization does not see the value of specific support being provided, the initiatives will likely not be as effective if they even occur.
- Project integration. The implementing partner must fully buy-in to the value of partnering with the local organization during the transition process. For the transition to be effective, the project team must consider the goals of the transition to be core to the scope of their existing work with USAID, not a standalone initiative. Furthermore, the implementing partner must continuously seek ways to leverage its ongoing programming to facilitate the local organization’s learning and development. USAID can contribute to this effort by working closely with the implementing partner and the local organization to clarify each role as the transition effort evolves. Additionally, the implementing partner may be incentivized to seek additional ways to support the local organizations if indicators related to the transition process are built into their monitoring, evaluation, and learning framework.
- Designing and managing the transition entails unique skills. Recognizing that support to a transition process adds a layer of complexity and new activities to ongoing projects, assigning or contracting a transition manager role is helpful. USAID should also consider highlighting implementing partners that have gained significant experience developing the capacity of local organizations to themselves become implementing partners, recognizing them as champions of local ownership and as role models, as they may be available to provide guidance or technical assistance to other implementing partners and local organizations embarking on this process.
- Embeddedness into the local organization. The implementing partner’s transition manager should be as immersed in the local organization’s team as possible to provide substantial support. To the extent possible, the transition manager needs to be seen as a local organization member and as their advocate. The transition manager should sit a few days a week in the local organization’s office to get to know the team and be present for planned and ad hoc meetings and conversations. The more information and processes the transition manager can access – local organization’s internal emails, senior management meetings, technical conversations, etc. – the better support and more nuanced insight they will be able to provide. For this reason, it would also be valuable for the local organization to have input into the transition manager’s job description.
- Agility in implementation. While the transition plan should be as specific as possible, USAID, implementing partners and local organizations should be prepared to be flexible. Approval processes from both USAID, and the implementing partner should be easy and efficient. Additionally, since the transition manager will deliver much of the technical assistance through training, workshops, and meetings, often with needs arising spontaneously, the best learning opportunities may not be those that adhere to the original timeline or that arise from standard pedagogical content development processes.
- Reputation. Beyond technical expertise and program management experience with USAID, the most valuable asset an implementing partner can transfer to a local organization is its reputation, developed from relationships with local actors. Implementing partners should be generous in this role. Coordinating introductory meetings and facilitating new partnerships can have a lasting impact on the local organization’s success and engagement with USAID. Setting the local organization up for success through solidified relationships with key local actors is the best way for an implementing partner to ensure their project interventions and results will be sustained over the long term.