Findings Illuminate Challenges and Opportunities for USAID in Supporting Local Capacity

Jul 28, 2014 by  Comments (0)

New research commissioned by USAID will help the Agency more fully understand the implications of partnering more with local organizations and bolstering country ownership. The “Local Solutions” component of the USAID Forward agenda is tightly connected to the “C” element in Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA). For USAID to become a stronger learning organization, collaborating through partnerships with local organizations and their government counterparts is essential.

The research findings and recommendations, which came in the form of a formal report, were produced under the Learning Agenda on Local Capacity Development. The initiative is a global research effort designed to inform USAID on building better partnerships with local organizations. It is part of the Capable Partners Program (CAP), which provides technical assistance, training and grants management to USAID Missions and operating units to enhance programs for strengthening nongovernmental organizations. The following are some excerpts from the report, written under the direction of Research Director Thomas Dichter, that highlight the major messages. To learn more, download the Executive Summary or the full report at the bottom of this post.


Between May 2012 and September 2013, the research team conducted fieldwork in nine countries (Sri Lanka, Morocco, Jamaica, Peru, Moldova, Nepal, Tanzania, Kenya, the Philippines, and India), meeting with local organizations of many different types as well as USAID Missions in each country. Taking a qualitative approach, a total of 325 organizations were interviewed, along with 70 USAID personnel. IA historical study of USAID work in capacity development was conducted, in addition to a literature review and a network analysis of local organizations and donor relationships in Tanzania and Nepal.

The Main Message

"The world of local organizations (indeed the world of development itself) is changing more rapidly than ever, and to a large extent many donors and INGOs have not kept up with those changes as fully as they might."

“Recent initiatives under USAID Forward, including the work of USAID's Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL); the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA); and the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances (IDEA) under Investment Planning Review (IPR) 1 and 2, along with the Local Capacity Development (LCD) teams within Missions, are significant moves in the right direction. USAID is half way there. It has a sound sense of the WHAT of local organizations, of the need to localize aid, of a more nuanced view of capacity development as more than just the capacity to work with USAID. But the rest of the journey lies ahead and most of it is about the HOW of reform and change.”

The Findings

1. Local organizations are changing.

"A key existential dilemma for many local organizations is as much their position vis a vis donors and their handmaidens (the INGOs and contractors) as it is their position vis a vis their own constituents nationally. For while local organizations have grown, so have INGOs and contractors."

"At the heart of this problematic donor-local organization relationship is a growing ambivalence about it. Many CSOs and government units see the inherent power imbalance between giver and taker; they want aid money, but are less and less comfortable taking it or asking for it."

2. The enabling environment is changing.

"...there is still competition, distrust, mutual disdain and active repression in some countries, but in others it is tempered by a real world recognition that to get some things done one has to find ways to work together – there is more consciousness about what each sector can bring to the table. Thus at government level there is more listening to civil society in general; and here and there a recognition that the legal and regulatory environment needs updating if not major reform."

3. The question of whose capacity and for what is being asked.

"There is widespread training fatigue."

"The pedagogy of the standard package capacity 1.0 development approach is being questioned. People want much more custom-tailored approaches; more real-time, problem-related approaches that engage mentors or involve peer to peer learning. The preference for these 'horizontal' as opposed to 'vertical' approaches is growing.”

4. There is a lot of capacity out there.

"When we asked what Northern organizations bring to the table, the answers we heard most often had to do with a) clout in leading to the sources of money, b) some degree of protection from their own governments, c) taking the ‘hassle” of dealing with donors off their shoulders, or d) influence."

USAID’s Role 

"What we found almost everywhere is what one might call a 'two cultures' issue—the program versus the compliance culture—the USAID AOR (Agreement Officer’s Representative) responsibility to guard and protect the money and the Program person’s impetus to spend it wisely, productively, but also as a way to encourage learning. These two 'cultures' do not see the work of USAID in the same way. "

" the absence of not knowing [the compliance rules] fully (or the extent to which they allow leeway and flexibility) the safest route, and the route that most reduces cognitive dissonance is to take an ‘it-can’t-be-done' stance."

"Risk is largely defined as fiduciary risk and it this kind of risk that reinforces an underlying attitude that many local organizations are lacking in capacity."

Issues under LCD have “no dedicated budget."

"A big challenge is the agency’s human resources."

"There remains a strong underlying preference for a linear approach to issues; and for control; a predilection for a substantialist, mechanistic, rational view of what to do and how to do it. These preferences limit the possibilities of new roles and approaches that are iterative, 'next steps' and experiential."


"There is an opportunity under the LCD emphasis to begin changing USAID’s role from engaging large contractors to “do and deliver” to becoming more of a facilitator, broker and convener."

"Therefore we suggest an experimental approach...In essence USAID not only does not have to figure it all out at once, but should not try to. [This] could be done in self–selected missions, or missions selected on the basis of a competition, that would then be given a dedicated budget and personnel, and enable them to experiment and test in a number of areas."