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Community Contribution

What does it mean for USAID programs to be locally led? We asked! 

Jul 19, 2023
Colleen Brady, Corbin Ford, Joyce Elele, Uchenna Mbawuike 

USAID’s localization agenda seeks to ensure local actors lead across all aspects of USAID programming. In addition to striving to provide at least a quarter of our program funds directly to local partners by the end of FY 2025, USAID has also committed that, by 2030, at least fifty percent of our programming will place local communities in the lead to set priorities, codesign projects, drive implementation, or define and measure results. As we developed a way to track our progress toward this commitment, we wanted to reflect the experiences, lessons learned, and recommendations from partners, Missions, and local organizations. 

From November 2022 to April 2023, USAID held internal and external consultations with over 300 local and international organizations and partners and 22 USAID Missions, who shared what they have seen move the needle to advance local leadership in their work. We assembled a team of analysts and reviewed over 300 pages of notes and suggestions. Each suggestion was assigned a qualitative code by using a combined inductive and deductive coding approach; the team then analyzed the results, surfacing key themes and recommendations. USAID used this analysis to inform the development of a new Locally Led Programs indicator that will enable us to better understand the approaches we use to advance locally led development and will inspire continued progress toward our commitment of elevating local leadership in our work. This blog details the consultation and analysis process that underpinned the indicator.

An outline of a world map pinpoints the locations of 22 USAID Missions and 48 countries represented by over 300 organizations who participated in consultations.

Our Process 

As a starting point, USAID’s Localization Working Group brainstormed a list of 30 good practices that enable or elevate local leadership of USAID funded activities. The identified elements were based on Agency-wide learning around effective practices for advancing local leadership across design, award, implementation, and procurement stages. We then developed a codebook including this initial list of 30 practices, leaving room for new themes and new good practices that we had not yet anticipated to emerge from the feedback we received through the consultative process.

A first step was to use a process for interrater reliability to ensure the analysis team had a shared understanding of terms. Once that was established, we used a qualitative coding software to review and code all of the data we had received from internal and external consultations. We applied nearly 2,000 codes to the documents, notes, and feedback received; over half of the codes focused on proposed good practices; while about one third of the feedback focused on other good practices USAID had not included on our original list. The remainder of the feedback was either very specific to how the indicator would be defined and structured, or much more broad, relating to USAID’s approach to localization writ large. 

Next, we dove into analysis to understand which types of specific actions were most valued, which were less valued, and by whom. Some specific practices, such as “co-design with local communities,” emerged consistently as a top priority across all types of stakeholders, from Missions to community-based organizations (CBOs) to international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Other practices had greater support from some stakeholders than others. For instance, USAID Missions saw co-creation of awards with local partners as one of the most effective ways they could advance local leadership, while local and international organizations agreed that co-creation is valuable, but did not list it as a top priority. Ultimately, the analysis allowed the team to rank-order the list of 30 good practices and distill these down to a list of 14 most highly prioritized good practices to be included in the final indicator. 

There are some limitations in the data. For example, different consultations had different structures, so not everyone responded to the same questions or prompts. This made direct comparisons between consultations challenging. Additionally, consultations revealed that the good practices, even when accompanied by (high level) definitions, are not always well understood, by local partners less familiar with USAID processes, and even within USAID itself! This recognition prompted careful review to ensure we captured key priorities, and a commitment to more clearly define each practice as a key next step.

What We Learned

From an analysis of feedback about the existing good practices, we learned that:

Early engagement with communities is essential. Local organizations, international partners, and Missions alike all pointed out that co-designing with communities in the priority setting and design stage helps set programs on the path to respond to local priorities and advance local leadership. Local partners also viewed co-creation of award language as a positive way to integrate their priorities into design. One respondent recognized that “participatory processes are expensive and time-consuming.” Yet, the respondent stated, they are “a worthy outcome, not just a means to improve implementation.” Another respondent from a local CBO suggested, “involving the community is the key to have long-term impacts from any projects. Make sure that your project involves the community at various stages; this will give them ownership of the project.”

There is huge support for shifting power to local communities through direct partnerships. As one local CBO shared, “USAID should try by all means to avoid middlemen in project implementation.” Local and international organizations alike jointly recognized that money is power, and that being a prime- awardee or contractor makes a big difference in an organization’s ability to shape programming. At the same time, there was a recognition that partnering with USAID directly is challenging, and requires organizations to have systems, staff, and processes in place to meet award requirements. Several respondents pointed to the importance of right-sizing award amounts for new organizations; accompanying new organizations through the partnering process; and exploring flexible or transition award models to strengthen local organizations’ capacity.

There is a deep appreciation for asset-based approaches. Feedback highlighted the recognition that local actors have capacity and USAID should adopt assets-based approaches to leverage the depth of resources and skills already found in communities. One INGO underscored the need to implement USAID’s Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, saying the approach it lays out “not only enhances partner performance against their missions and mandates, but also fosters more meaningful and equitable partnerships between local and national actors and their international counterparts.” 

We also received ideas for good practices beyond the initial list of 30, as well as feedback that highlighted the importance of how any of these practices are implemented as critical to whether or not they meaningfully elevate local leadership. That is, these actions, in and of themselves, are not enough. 

  • We heard that USAID needs to prioritize inclusion and ensure processes are transparent and rooted in communities. As one CBO representative shared, “These actions could be meaningful or partially meaningful: it’s all about whether local communities have ownership of those steps.”
  • Local organizations would also like to see more capacity strengthening opportunities that specifically strengthen their abilities to navigate USAID systems and requirements. They pointed out this type of support would not only be valuable for their work with USAID, but also for their ability to attract other donor funds. 
  • Flexibility” doesn’t stop with the type of award instrument. Flexibility can and should be incorporated in implementation through adaptive management—which requires open-mindedness and a degree of risk tolerance on the part of USAID staff. 
  • USAID has the ability to make everyday changes in its business practices that would better support the work of local partners; this includes reducing reporting requirements (e.g., focus on biannual or annual reporting in lieu of quarterly reporting), and working more in local languages (across solicitations, reports, websites, and success stories).

How We Applied What We Learned

We reviewed the most prioritized actions (both those on our original list, and new actions shared during consultations), and grouped them into four main categories of good practices that will be tracked under the new Locally Led Programs indicator: 

  • Working Directly with Local Partners: USAID undertakes activities that are implemented by local partners as prime awardees or by host country governments. Counting this specific action as its own category recognizes how significantly local organizations view direct partnership as an opportunity to shift power, and encourages USAID to prioritize it in accordance with Agency policy and to the greatest extent practicable. 
  • Creating Effective Local Partnerships: USAID co-designs and co-creates activities in ways that elevate local decision making, support mutuality, and promote reciprocal trust and accountability. This category recognizes how USAID works directly with local partners matters when it comes to promoting local leadership, from co-design in early stages to long-term flexibility during activity implementation.
  • Recognizing, Leveraging, and Strengthening Local Capacity: USAID invests in strengthening local capacity, and in leveraging and elevating existing capacity, local knowledge, and expertise in the places where we work. This category will count a range of capacity strengthening approaches, and recognize that it may come in the format of development programming or through significant subawards or transition awards to local actors.
  • Engaging Communities Directly: USAID uses inclusive and participatory approaches throughout our programs, including direct engagement of USAID staff with local partners and communities. This category echoes the importance of “taking out the middleman,” and promotes direct engagement with local communities through long-term engagement and relationship building, from the conception of activities to their implementation, through monitoring and evaluation. This category also elevates elements of inclusion that were so often raised throughout consultations.

Looking Forward

We recognize that tracking this list of good practices and specific actions of USAID staff and USAID funded activities is only one part of meaningfully ensuring local partners and the local communities they serve are truly leading development efforts in their contexts. For one thing, this is not an exhaustive list of practices or approaches that create space for local actors to exercise leadership; there are many ways USAID programs can create space for local leadership, not all of which are easily quantifiable and not all of which are directly tied to an activity. It will also be important to focus on the “how” and work to ensure that these actions are meaningfully felt by the communities and local partners with which we work. With this indicator, we are holding ourselves to account for making progress on our commitment of elevating local leadership

About the authors
Colleen Brady

USAID / Bureau of Development, Democracy, and Innovation / Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub / Senior Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Specialist with the Locally Led Development Initiative

Corbin Ford

USAID / Bureau of Development, Democracy, and Innovation / Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub / Program Assistant with the Locally Led Development Initiative

Joyce Elele

USAID Bureau of Program Policy and Learning / Learning, Evidence and Research / Evaluation and Learning Advisor, Monitoring Team

Uchenna Mbawuike 

USAID / Bureau of Development, Democracy, and Innovation / Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub / Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Specialist with the Locally Led Development Initiative