Empowering Subs as Thought Leaders
International development and humanitarian projects are often specialized and complex. Even the most diverse prime organizations, or “primes,” can't do everything. That’s why primes work with subawardees and subcontractors, known as “subs''—to get access to unique skills, expertise, and local knowledge they may lack.
However, primes must value their subs as strategic assets to take projects to the next level. Having an open mind to elevate subs as thought partners can greatly benefit a project and promote the sustainability and contributions of these smaller, often local, organizations into the future.
Even more broadly—and more importantly—in promoting global change, development practitioners must be willing to infuse empowerment into their implementation strategies to improve processes. Elevating subs as vital contributors and showcasing their work demonstrates key values of respect and inclusivity central to USAID’s localization vision.
Be Transparent and Supportive
How your subs perform becomes a hallmark of your project. When subs understand the environment in which your project operates, they can become informed members of your team and execute to the best of their ability. Everyone benefits when performance expectations and responsibilities are clearly defined.
Kap-Kirwok Jason, Chief of Party (COP) for the USAID-funded Regional Intergovernmental Organization (RIGO) System Strengthening Activity in East Africa, suggests instituting a formal training program to orient partners on performance and compliance expectations.
"Spend time training partners and include them in project management meetings regularly. Even if it doesn't directly concern them, you want partners to feel a part of the team. Have them join your weekly meetings as much as possible so you're completely aligned from the beginning," remarks Jason.
Natalia Kolbjornsen, a Program Manager with the Kaizen Company, stresses the importance of transparent communication around information related to budgets and timelines, adding, "Their entire team might depend on that partnership. Suppose you're not transparent and sharing things that will impact their day-to-day work. In that case, they won't have time to prepare, and that's unfair."
Create Space for Leadership and Growth
COPs or Project Directors should include subs in conversations that impact their work and create an openness to hear alternative solutions, from project conceptualization and implementation to monitoring and reporting. Give subcontractors intellectual leadership in their areas of expertise.
"You have got to build trust and leave space," remarks Morris Israel, the COP for the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Partnerships and Learning For Sustainability (WASHPALS) #2 project. "There have been instances where I've received a response, and it would be easy for me to say, 'This is how you do it.' But I stepped back and asked the partners how they would do it."
What also makes WASHPALS #2 unique is that instead of channeling communication through the COP, subs have a relationship with the Contracting Officer's Representative (COR) and are elevated as technical leads, often presenting findings directly to USAID.
Encourage technical conversations across lines of leadership, from the COP to the subs, for fluid engagement and information sharing. This approach creates an ownership mindset that the project is just as much the subs’ as the primes’. For subs with cross-sector knowledge and skill sets, allow them space to provide value in other areas when possible.
Lead with Empathy and Respect
Primes should take the time to reflect on their reliance on subs to assess their collaborative relationship. Subs should feel a part of the team and not a managed resource. Contracts drive the function of international development, but people are at the foundation of each agreement. People who work hard create impact and provide high-value outcomes.
"Don't be selfish when showing gratitude for those making a contribution that affects the outcomes of your project. Thank subpartners for their ideas," says Dr. Donna Vincent Roa, the Partnerships Incubator Project Director.
Prioritize understanding, trust, and communication to create an equitable relationship that raises morale and motivates all parties to perform at their highest potential. Subs will be more open and willing to accept constructive feedback and recommendations when respect is central to the working environment and culture.
Benefits of a Collaborative Approach
A skilled sub is a vital resource for any development project, and that relationship must be cultivated and nourished. Subs with extensive technical expertise, particularly those who have worked within the local context for many years, can be excellent resources for ideas and feedback that strengthen the project’s outcomes. These partners bring firsthand experience, cultural insights, and on-the-ground perspectives, allowing for more nuanced and practical programming.
By approaching subcontractors and subawardees as partners in collaboration, primes can avoid unnecessary pivots or a commitment to unachievable deliverables and instead facilitate tailored interventions that effectively respond to the needs and aspirations of the target communities.
There is also magic in the meeting of minds, especially when several subs support a prime. When subs work together, they can leverage specialized skills and learn from one another to expand their expertise. Elevating the strengths of all partners gives the project access to a consortium of ready-made experts for all thematic areas.
"Subs create positive momentum. When you have subs, you experience the strength of the collective mind. You gain access to alternative viewpoints. Subs give us an extra layer of being connected to the industry's best and next practices, such as in graphic design and available technologies," says Dr. Roa.
Doing Good and Doing Well
Amplifying local partners and vendors is also an investment in localization and sustainability. By supporting the growth and empowerment of local organizations, primes can strengthen capacity among local partners that will go on to serve their communities. As USAID makes significant strides to further localization, prime partners who elevate and empower their local subs have an opportunity to “do good” by strengthening local capacity and “do well” by making their development work more effective, relevant, and impactful.