Preparing for the Next Crisis: USAID's Local Capacity Strengthening Policy
Amy McQuade is a Foreign Service Officer at USAID. She has served in Haiti; Washington, DC; Cuba; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Afghanistan; and Lebanon. She has previously practiced law, including as a legal clerk at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
One thing all of us in development and humanitarian work know is that when it comes to crises, it’s not a matter of if, but when. In recent years I’ve learned that one of the best ways to prepare for crises is to build strong, trusting relationships with local partners. Fortunately, USAID has a new resource to help us do that. The Agency’s Local Capacity Strengthening Policy is helping us forge stronger, more equitable local partnerships so that we are better prepared to respond when the inevitable happens.
I’ve seen the consequences of a lack of established local partnerships. In 2020, I was the Supervisory Contracting Officer at the USAID Mission in Lebanon when the Beirut Port exploded. Up until then, our Mission was focused primarily on providing services outside of Beirut, so we didn’t have significant programming in the city. When the harbor exploded—instantly killing hundreds and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless—we needed to quickly start coordinating an emergency operation in the capital but lacked access to a network of local partners.
With the help of our Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) and Cooperating Country Nationals (CCNs), we realized that many small, local groups were taking on critical—and often heroic—rescue and recovery efforts. There were far more local actors than we knew existed, and they were highly skilled at their work. It became immediately apparent that, in addition to emergency funding, we needed to develop a structured approach to identifying and supporting active groups and assessing and supporting their capabilities.
Addressing the Short and Long Term
To build our network of local organizations, we took a two-pronged approach, cultivating local partnerships in both the short and long term. In the short term, we learned about the groups that were already at work moving rubble, building housing, and providing food. It became clear they were already successful in their objectives, but they needed support to strengthen their capacity to collaborate, plan for financial sustainability, and comply with different donor policies (including USAID). We focused on streamlining our own USAID processes as much as possible to vet local organizations and then provide funding and administrative strengthening support. We fast-tracked a process that could have taken months and compressed it into two weeks.
The second prong of our localization efforts was to develop a longer-term framework for the USAID/Lebanon Mission. This framework is an evolving approach rooted in the idea of mutual trust and respect, which is Principle 7 of the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy. The framework guided us in reaching out to local groups to ask if they would be open to meeting. Then, our FSN colleagues led the way, bringing their deep local knowledge and connections to identify groups, coordinate introductions, and run our meetings.
An element of the new USAID Local Capacity Strengthening Policy that especially resonates with me is the idea that we must listen more to local actors to understand their capacities and priorities. In reaching out to local organizations in Lebanon, listening was key. We listened to our FSNs and our existing local partners when seeking to identify more local groups. We set up listening sessions with these new organizations, learning about their perspectives, challenges, and goals.
With this new understanding, we were able to create mutual trust. We learned to trust that local partners understood their communities and how to meet their needs. In return, the local partners learned to trust our intention to be long-term partners. They learned that we were interested in helping them strengthen their capacity to meet their goals, not just to comply with USAID and its regulations.
This approach proved so successful that our network of local organizations has grown exponentially, and many are engaged in implementation. Even those local organizations that are not USAID partners are part of a larger network that we help to convene and support.
This Time We Were Ready
My team and I applied the approach and lessons we learned in Lebanon—such as listening, proactively reaching out to local partners, and streamlining sub-grant approval—throughout the region so we would be ready and able to support local organizations the next time an unthinkable crisis occurred. Unfortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to put this into practice.
In April 2023, a massive earthquake devastated Turkey and Syria. Again, we were faced with a horrifying, chaotic situation. But this time we were ready. We didn’t assume that local partners would come to us. We knew we had to reach out to them and learn about the work they were already doing and the support they wanted from us. Our streamlined, more-flexible procurement processes allowed us to structure the criteria of the subawards and approve grantees in record time. In one case, our mutual commitment to partnership was so strong that a local organization was vetted and became our partner in two days. Our support helped to fund their rescue of 2,953 people from the rubble.
Ultimately, our shift in approach did take time. But it wasn’t a heavy lift, and it didn’t require a huge analysis. Rather, it required challenging ourselves, assessing how we’ve historically operated, and shifting our priorities. What I see in this new Policy is a similar call to action for the entire Agency. If our goal is to build sustainable results, it’s critical to listen and trust local partners more. It’s critical to realign our ways of working to reflect mutual respect and accountability. And it’s critical to prioritize and make time for local capacity strengthening.
Did you know? The Local Capacity Strengthening Policy is available in Spanish, French, and Arabic. For additional resources on practicing mutuality with local partners and to better understand and apply the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, check out USAID's Local Capacity Strengthening Policy micro-trainings.