Piloting the Locally Led Development Checklist as a Pause & Reflect Tool in Armenia
In this interview, Learning Lab gets the inside scoop from Lusine Hakobyan at USAID/Armenia and Liana Poghosyan from local partner Prisma who, in September 2020, piloted a new pause and reflect tool developed by USAID’s Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships (LFT) Hub. The tool, the Locally Led Development Checklist, is “designed to help USAID Missions and partners consider and adopt locally led approaches at every stage of the development process.”
USAID/Armenia was interested in how local partners perceived themselves to be empowered throughout the implementation of a research activity to inform program design under the Mission’s Local Works program. In this activity, three local organizations conducted rapid assessments to measure local government transparency, responsiveness, and levels of citizen participation in local decision-making in ten Armenian communities. Two grassroot organizations carried out the data collection in the ten communities. Prisma, a local research organization, developed the methodology and analyzed the collected data.
To reflect on the depth and extent of local organizations’ engagement, the Mission engaged in a series of 1-1.5 hour pause and reflect sessions with each of the three local partners. The Locally Led Development Checklist was used to frame and learn from these sessions. Prisma was involved in the first session, which was facilitated by LFT Hub staff and attended by the USAID/Armenia COR and alternate COR.
Lusine Hakobyan is a Development Program Specialist with the Armenia Mission and the Civil Society Activities Lead, as well as the point of contact for the Mission’s Local Works Program. Liana Poghosyan is the Executive Director at Prisma, a local partner and research organization in Armenia. In the following conversation, they reflect on that first pause and reflect session.
Interviewer (Katherine Doyle, Learning Lab Manager): What were the benefits of using the Locally Led Development Checklist tool during the pause and reflect sessions?
Liana: The tool was effective for facilitating discussion on the extent of our engagement with USAID through the performance of the contract. We reflected on the process of developing and adapting the methodology, challenges but also advantages of engaging with the local grassroots organizations for data collection, etc.
Lusine: The tool triggers focused conversation on the processes, incentives, stakeholders, level of engagement of diverse stakeholders, and different levels of engagement of the actors involved in the process. It also provides some space and time to reflect on things that might have been done differently though the implementation.
Interviewer: Were there any challenges that the team encountered in using the Checklist? Are there aspects of the pause and reflect series that you would have done differently?
Lusine: This is a new tool, and as such, there was a need to clarify some aspects of the questions, and allow some time for reflection. The dynamics of conversation were interesting - slower at the beginning and in-depth and extended at the end of the set time. All three meetings were held online due to COVID-19 restrictions in the country. In general, the tool sets a perfect framework for reflection and for revisiting some of the approaches. The duration of the sessions was adjusted after the first one-more time was allocated for the rest of the sessions.
Liana: We didn’t face any challenges - the facilitation was smooth and the discussion open. All parties were open to talk about challenges and learn from the process- this was a safe space for reflection and insights.
Interviewer: How was space created to be inclusive of the various voices “in the room” at the pause and reflect sessions?
Lusine: The facilitators were asking the questions, clarifying those in case that was needed, and then were providing sufficient time for reflection and discussion in line with best facilitation practices. I was offering my perspective only after the partners, and this was generating more discussion. During the sessions with the grassroot organizations, I opened the meeting with an introduction and purpose of the session, setting the tone by saying that there are no “right or wrong” answers and that we treat this as a learning exercise and are interested in doing things differently by engaging them more. I facilitated the sessions, and following the Washington colleagues’ style, provided more time and space for the organizations to reflect and express themselves.
Liana: It was a while ago, but I remember a very open and friendly discussion. We were free to express our views about the process and it felt good knowing that apart from delivering our professional services, we are also contributing to a learning process.
Interviewer: We often hear that there are “power dynamics” at play when USAID staff and partner staff convene. Partner staff may feel less empowered to share their perspectives or opinions openly, or USAID staff may - intentionally or unintentionally - drive the conversation in a specific direction. Were power dynamics addressed to alleviate such potential challenges? If so, did this work well/not well?
Liana: There was absolutely no pressure on what to say and not to say before, during or after the sessions. It was actually empowering to know the opinion of a research company contracted for an assessment matters for organizational learning of an organization, like USAID.
Lusine: Because the modality of working with the local partners has been very cooperative throughout the process - there was no pressure during the session either - we “agreed to disagree” (of course in staying in the frame of the contract provisions) and set the tone of working collaboratively during the development of the methodology and training.
Interviewer: What key takeaways did using the Locally Led Development Checklist reveal to both USAID staff and partner staff?
Liana: The contract for methodology development and analysis for the Rapid Assessment in the communities was Prisma’s first experience working directly with USAID. It was interesting to locate our engagement on the Locally Led Development Spectrum and visualize how engaged and closely engaged we were during our work. This was essential considering the tough time we were operating in: first it was COVID-19 pandemic which forced us to redesign the assessment, then it was the war that caused delays and created barriers for phone interviews. But collaboratively we were able to find solutions to all challenges.
Lusine: Intentional and early engagement with the implementing partners takes time but yields better development outcomes: partners are aware of the local context with nuanced understanding of all processes, actors and relationships which helps USAID to plan accordingly but also adapt easily, as well as feel engaged and get the sense of ownership.
Different implementing mechanisms allow for different levels of engagement, so this should be considered while planning and implementing locally led development activities.
Interviewer: What were the outcomes of this series of pause and reflect sessions? What lessons did the team learn and what adaptations, if any, were identified?
Lusine: The take away was that USAID had a pretty close engagement with all local organizations/stakeholders on all levels - depending on their role in the process. All lessons learned, including early engagement with the partners, co-creation opportunities, and the mechanisms used, will be incorporated in the upcoming activities of the Local Works programming in Armenia. We couldn’t change anything at that point as the activities were over. Another takeaway was that there have been partnerships formed regardless of the mechanism used (including purchase orders that may not seem to provide much space for collaboration). Local organizations and companies are more open for learning. When it’s time for the core Local Works activity, we will plan and budget for pause and reflect sessions to be able to incorporate the lessons learned within the implementation of the activity.
Liana: There is always some place and time for closer engagement and learning with USAID, regardless of the mechanism.
Interviewer: How did the conditions of COVID-19 change how the pause and reflect sessions were conducted and/or how the LLD Checklist was used? There are a lot of challenges to doing collaborative work remotely, but were there any surprise benefits that came out of adapting to the situation?
Lusine: The session was conducted in September 2020, so all participants were used to working online, knew the “code of conduct” and had the experience of online events and tools at their disposal. So no surprises here. All these meetings might have been delayed if not for COVID restrictions and availability and skills to engage with partners in different countries online.
Liana: All participants have already mastered the shift to the online space, and in general, the online modus operandi provides an opportunity to reach out beyond the borders, as was the case for this pause and reflect session.
Interviewer: Would you recommend the Locally Led Development Checklist to colleagues at USAID and partner staff? Why or why not? Are there any tips you would suggest to others using it for the first time?
Liana: The reflection sessions are also important for partners and service providers. During the session I remember noting that, due to the specific arrangement that was made between the partners for Local Works in Armenia (particularly the work was divided between one profit-making specialized organization and two grass root NGOs), all sides enriched their experiences of partnerships and created linkages that could be utilized in the future as well. Soon after this session, there was another project opportunity and Prisma was invited to be part of the consortium by one of the data collection organizations we met through Local Works.
Lusine: Definitely, I would recommend the tool as a pause and reflect tool. These sessions were important and helpful. Very often we need to deliver and rush for the results and lack time and opportunities for stopping and reflecting on our path and approaches. Tips: be patient, depending on the scope of the activity, allow for some time for reflection. Do it sometimes at the midpoint of the projects so you will have time to adapt.
Interested in trying out the Locally Led Development Checklist? Find the Fact Sheet, Facilitation Guide, and Worksheet here!