Setting a New Course for Partnerships in Zambia
“USAID is not a speedboat, we are a freighter,” states USAID/Zambia Supervisory Contracting and Agreement Officer Mike Capobianco, or “Capo” as his colleagues call him. Noting the long history of localization efforts that have been underway at USAID for years under various names, he acknowledges that the shift toward working directly with more local partners is challenging for a large agency like USAID.
Just as changing a boat’s course requires confident navigation, so does change within the Agency. Together with motivated USAID/Zambia staff, Capo and his colleagues are adjusting their bearings and setting a bold new course that goes beyond the simple goal of more dollars going to local organizations and instead looks at how to make sure those organizations are successful in the long term as new local partners.
At Capo’s side is Charles Nyanoka, the first Zambian in the Mission to hold a warrant. A warrant is a federally issued permit that qualifies an individual to make awards and contracts on behalf of the U.S. government, and it is no small task to achieve. In recent years, USAID has sought to enable more locally employed staff, often known as Cooperating Country Nationals (CCNs), to pursue warrants to expand its acquisition and assistance workforce, which is part of the Agency’s recently updated Acquisition & Assistance Strategy.
Together, Capo and Nyanoka radiate a passion for supporting local organizations while being equally committed to stewarding U.S. federal funding. Talking with them, it is clear that they and their Office of Acquisition & Assistance (OAA) colleagues also see their work as a kind of development activity in its own right—one that involves being both a front door and an incubator for new local organizations. “We have to engage our local partners as a strategic asset, nurture them, be there for them, be in their corner, make sure that they know that they're supported, and be on call for them,” says Capo.
But what does it mean for a Mission to actually “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”? That’s the question Capo, Nyanoka, and others asked themselves, and what they came up with was the creation of a new Localization Unit within the Mission, headed by Nyanoka.
Establishing a Localization Unit
Capo and Nyanoka set up the Mission’s Localization Unit in July 2022, with Nyanoka in the lead both due to his high qualifications and his perspective as a Zambian national. The first task, they thought, would be convincing Mission colleagues about its value. “Surprisingly, they were excited, because I think they felt the burden, especially the AORs (Agreement Officer’s Representative) and CORs (Contracting Officer’s Representative), of managing local awards. So having this Unit I think to them was more like a relief, like ‘Okay, any local-related stuff, we have these go-to people,’” says Nyanoka.
A key to that buy-in was the Localization Unit Charter that the team developed and was shared within and outside the Mission for input and comment. The Charter not only outlined the rationale and role of the unit, but it also provided language and set norms around how to interact with local partners in a new mindset. Finally, it made responsive customer service a success factor for interactions with local partners: “The mentality of ‘being proactive’ and ‘here’s how to do it’ must be the foundation,” reads the Charter.
From the partners’ side the reception to the new Unit has been enthusiastic. “I know they were excited, just when they saw the Charter,” says Nyanoka. “They were happy. And I think, to a greater extent, they felt that there was attention given to them, and they could bring out the issues.”
Nyanoka and his colleagues Doreen Muleya and Moono Chikumbi meet with partners as much as they’re able, both one-on-one and at larger partner gatherings. “It's all about establishing that relationship and then making sure that they know [they are supported],” says Capo. “I mean, they all have Charles' number. They call him up on a daily basis.”
What Partners Should Know
The Zambia team’s approach is just one example of how USAID Missions around the world are rethinking their own roles to cultivate local partnerships. As Capo and Nyanoka see it, they are intermediaries between the partner community and their colleagues, by virtue of where they sit in the Mission and the work they do as COs. “We are not meant to be USAID’s attack dog or the partner's sole defender,” says Capo. “We are meant to sit on the fence and make impartial decisions that are equitable to all parties."
A key to making this balance work is building strong, supportive relationships not only with potential and new partners but also with Mission colleagues—and then clearly communicating this role. “This means making sure that the partners know that we will turn around and tell our [USAID] colleagues, ‘Hey, you're wrong on this,’” says Capo.
Both Capo and Nyanoka stress that their goal is to establish a comfortable relationship where partners can ask questions, request what they need, and even push back on Agency requests that present organizational challenges. What is their advice to potential and new USAID partners? First, learn as much as you can about the Mission’s priorities in the country where you seek to work. Second, don’t be afraid to ask questions! USAID staff like Capo and Nyanoka know that new partners will have questions. That’s why USAID/Zambia and other Missions are deepening their relationships with local partner ecosystems.
But these relationships take time to grow and flourish—and even more than that, they take trust. By creating new structures like the Localization Unit to better serve partners, and by spelling out the new vision for partner support through their Charter, the USAID/Zambia team is defining a new role for itself and putting wind in the sails of the Mission’s localization efforts.
For more information on localization at USAID, visit the Agency’s localization page.