The view from Vietnam: Five ways USAID can better engage local partners
The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) new “Progress Beyond Programs” framework stresses the importance of working with local partners to create impact that endures long after the project has ended. While USAID has long worked in partnership with local actors in the countries in which it’s active, the organization is repositioning itself to take an increasingly local-led approach, to ensure its work “puts local actors in the lead, strengthens local systems, and is responsive to local communities.”
USAID works globally, but at the same time, recognizes that development is inherently local. In addition to delivering results on projects and programs, implementing development activities strengthens the capacity of the local organization or company to sustain the impact beyond the life of that particular project. Working with local partners therefore means continually building and expanding the development ecosystem.
The USAID INVEST initiative, which aims to mobilize private capital for sustainable development results, has been working with USAID Vietnam since 2019 to achieve its private sector engagement goals — unlocking resources for infrastructure, climate and energy, health, financial inclusion, and more. INVEST has partnered with more than a dozen organizations in Vietnam to implement these activities.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam via USAID.gov
In April, we met with several current INVEST partners in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. They range from local startups to large global firms with a strong country presence in Vietnam. About a third had never worked with development donors like USAID or its implementing partners before, so it was helpful to hear firsthand about the partner relationship and what is (and isn’t) working in collaborating with USAID.
Here are our key takeaways from those conversations:
Engaging partners solidifies USAID’s local presence.
By working with local partners, USAID is able to tap into significant expertise among organizations familiar with the local context and operating environment. They also bring strong relationships and can build connections between USAID and local stakeholders. Nguyen Tuan Anh, Managing Director at RCEE-NIRAS, an engineering consultancy working with INVEST on a carbon labeling activity, commented, “I think local partners like us can be a kind of representative or ambassador for USAID projects toward local government and stakeholders. In addition to providing technical expertise and services, we can play a greater role in planning and designing new programs and strategizing project activities.”
Streamlined procurement processes make it easier to work with USAID.
Working with major donors like governments and development finance institutions often comes with significant bureaucracy and long timelines, with extensive proposal requirements and procurements that can last months or even years. Jumping through those hoops can be a major impediment to engaging in development work, especially for smaller organizations. Where possible, INVEST is trying to streamline that process for its partners.
INVEST has piloted a number of innovative procurement solutions, from simplifying the proposal process to a ten slide format and averaging only eight to ten weeks to sign a subcontract to start work. The project has also developed a library of useful resources to demystify working with USAID. As a result, over 80% of subcontracted firms are new and underutilized partners for USAID.
Working with INVEST is helping partners build their capacity and networks.
Our local partners have been able to grow through their work with INVEST. They noted that working on projects for international donors means they have to rise to meet international standards, which can be more rigorous, and this positions them better for other future work. INVEST provides continuous feedback, so that our partners can learn and improve over the course of the project. They are also able to build relationships and make connections that may translate into future collaborations.
INVEST’s success is largely due to its broad partner network, which is helping firms increase their capacity and access to opportunities with USAID that fit their expertise. In addition to making it easier to work with USAID, members are networking and building relationships among themselves.
It’s important to build flexibility into projects.
USAID Vietnam is using the INVEST project to try out new and innovative models of engaging the private sector, which often means there is no roadmap for the engagement. Combined with the complexities of coordinating with multiple public and private entities in Vietnam, this means that the projects have needed to stay flexible to adapt to changing environments.
INVEST has remained nimble in updating workplans when priorities changed or to capitalize on new opportunities. Building as much flexibility into workplans as possible to account for the unpredictable nature of work in Vietnam is helpful for us and our partners.
Partners are inspired by the work and see it as a benefit of working on these projects.
All the partners we spoke to were energized and inspired by the work they are doing with INVEST– the development impact is important to them. One partner even said that the interesting nature of the work incentivized them to engage even though it’s not the most profitable part of their service offerings. Another partner talked about how passion is one of their company’s core values, and working with USAID lets them live this out.
INVEST staff at dinner with RCEE-NIRAS, an INVEST partner
Of course, any partnership comes with its challenges. It’s hard to avoid some bureaucratic or contractual frustrations, even as INVEST tries too simplify and streamline where possible. We can’t always move as fast as our partners would like.
However, it was clear from our conversation that INVEST’s local partnerships are helping drive growth and achieve real development results in Vietnam. They both help achieve USAID’s goals and bring value to the partner organizations themselves — truly a win-win.
This piece was originally published on INVEST's Medium blog, which contains many other learnings from INVEST's work to mobilize investment for development.