Empowering Indigenous Collaboration: Insights from USAID’s Co-Creation Journey

Nov 3, 2023
News & Announcements
Localization & Inclusive Development
A man rowing a canoe in a river through a forest.Photo credit: Ammit / FSC-IF

Vy Lam is the Advisor on Indigenous Peoples in the Inclusive Development Hub in USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation (DDI).

Sandra Lazarte is the Indigenous Peoples Specialist in the Inclusive Development Hub in USAID’s DDI.

A Q&A with Vy Lam and Sandra Lazarte on USAID’s Co-Creation with Indigenous Partners (IP) Learning Document

How did the idea for USAID’s Learning Document on “Co-Creation with Indigenous Partners” originate? What were the key factors that contributed to its creation?

Vy Lam:

The idea emerged during Luis-Felipe Duchicela's tenure as Senior Advisor for Indigenous Peoples’ Issues at USAID. The document captures insights into USAID's co-creation processes with Indigenous partners, highlighting pilot efforts by Missions to trial methods of engagement better aligned with Indigenous peoples priorities, capacities, and preferred approaches, in accordance with the principles of USAID’s Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PRO-IP).    

 Historically, USAID has faced challenges in co-creating programs with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous communities and organizations because of the often diverse perspectives and visions for what development means for Indigenous peoples. Each tribe has their own culture, cosmovision, philosophy, and perspectives on the environment, natural resources, community well-being, and the meaning of development. It takes a lot more effort for USAID to engage, consult, and co-create development programs in a way that's meaningful for Indigenous peoples’ organizations (IPOs) and communities.

 The co-creation document aims to highlight how various Missions and staff tackled challenges in timing, effort, procurement processes, and mechanisms to co-create programs with IPOs and communities.

The document emphasizes the importance of harmonizing concepts from Indigenous communities' own languages when designing interventions.

Could you share more about the significance of this approach, and how it enhances the effectiveness and relevance of the interventions?


Harmonizing may not be the appropriate perspective. I think a more appropriate way to think about that is how do concepts in English and concepts from USAID translate into a local language specific to the community, specific to the Indigenous peoples and their own concepts of society, governance, and natural resources? What we need to be mindful of is that there are many perspectives for USAID that may not be readily translated or may be offensive when translated into local communities’ languages, culture, or perspectives. 

 Some of the key challenges for USAID to work with IPOs include issues of accountability, record keeping, financial disclosure, and conflict of interest, which are all very critical to USAID's foreign operation procurement laws and program implementation. But many community cultures and governance systems have their own mechanisms for legitimacy, their own mechanisms for decision-making, which may not satisfy USAID standards and requirements.

Sandra Lazarte: 

To have sustainability and projects that are not harmful, the development community is looking into Indigenous peoples’ governance systems, languages, and ways of understanding how they live and manage their livelihoods. If we take into account how Indigenous peoples perceive the world and the concepts they have, we are creating sustainability because we are working in development from their perspectives. 

What specific challenges do Indigenous organizations face in establishing strong management structures and financial administration in compliance with USAID regulations and taking on a more active role in project management?


The question is, how do we help IPOs achieve USAID’s standards of the operational and financial management aspects? One example is USAID’s collaboration with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to establish the Indigenous Peoples Alliance for Rights and Development (IPARD). This program aims to create an independent management team aligned with USAID standards while respecting Indigenous leaders’ leadership in defining technical prioritizations and focus.

Launched three years ago, IPARD successfully merges USAID's operational requirements with supporting Panama's Indigenous communities’ leadership and priorities in enhancing their self-governance. The program also fosters economic development and political empowerment, enabling Indigenous leaders’ engagement with Panama's government and devising Indigenous community-oriented development plans.

What considerations are taken into account when USAID decides between direct partnerships with Indigenous groups and collaborative prime-sub relationships?


The prime-sub relationship can be driven by technical needs. If USAID is designing a program for a region or nationwide, it would not be feasible to build direct partnership relationships with every single community within the country, so you need a prime that has visibility and can manage and aggregate individual efforts from individual communities and geographies. In the IP Learning Document, almost all the co-creation processes ended up needing a year or more. USAID devoted that level of commitment, in terms of staffing, to continually engage with Indigenous peoples throughout that year.

One question is, how can we honestly expect Indigenous peoples, their communities, and their leaders to devote so much effort, bandwidth, and commitment to engage with USAID over the year, keeping in mind that many of these communities may be in rural areas. And that these experts and leaders have other responsibilities, to their own families for their own livelihoods, and they may need to travel for days to come meet with USAID. 

In the co-creation process with IPOs, how does USAID ensure that cultural elements, for example, the role of elders or traditions related to dialogue, are prioritized?


We try to ensure this through multiple mechanisms. Our PRO-IP policy underscores engagement and consultation. We've crafted toolkits for social impact assessments and consultation handbooks. Adhering to a framework of free, prior, and informed consent ensures that USAID safeguards Indigenous peoples’ rights and invites their contribution to impactful decisions.

Recent White House guidelines and internal mandates direct integrating Indigenous knowledge into USAID’s program cycle. Ultimately, the Agreement Officer's Representative (AOR), Contracting Officer's Representative (COR), or program design lead at Missions or other operating units (OUs) drive consultation and proactive measures. 

According to the World Bank, there are more than 5,000 distinct Indigenous cultures around the world, and each one of them is unique. We cannot presume to understand what their needs are, how they want certain things done, and what they would like to see done for the benefit of their community.

What are some best practices for building trust, establishing relationships, and facilitating meaningful engagement and consultation with Indigenous communities?

How does this approach foster an environment where activities can be tailored to their specific governance systems and realities?


One example is for all USAID OUs to hire Indigenous peoples advisors; my team is providing funding support for recruiting advisors in Missions, reaching seven or eight with upcoming Indigenous advisors.

Another case, guided by USAID/Colombia and USAID/Guatemala, involves establishing and publicly monitoring an Indigenous engagement process. USAID/Guatemala publicly posted an online strategy. USAID/Colombia conducts an annual consultation process, welcoming civil society participation.

Co-creation, like the document highlights, is another example. Find different opportunities within the program cycle to bring in Indigenous leaders, Indigenous experts, and allies to reflect on USAID’s goals, intentions, and activities. 

In addition, during program design, involve communities to align visions. If not aligned, explore shared objectives. USAID/Peru released a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit input and gather civil society feedback before revising and finalizing the solicitation. After the program issues awards, grant partners over six months for inception, refining designs and work plans with target communities. Lastly, integrate community input into the monitoring and evaluation processes


To build trust, it's very important to consult with Indigenous communities from the beginning. Also, we should create accountability mechanisms so Indigenous peoples can reach out if there is any malpractice towards them.

What advice do you have for Indigenous-led organizations that might want to partner with USAID?


My advice would be to trust. We don't want to implement anything that will harm Indigenous communities; we want to work towards their self-determined development through a co-creation process. We have principles that guide our work and that we are respecting. I suggest for IPOs to define their role, based on their capacities, opportunities, limitations, and so on, and the development they want. We say this, because sometimes, an organization may want to have the technical leadership but they do 

If you are an Indigenous peoples’ organization looking to work with USAID, we encourage you to take the Pre-Engagement Assessment to determine your readiness and register in the Partner Directory to get connected with similar organizations. For additional resources on collaboration and co-creation with USAID, check out our Resource Library

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