Tips from a Local Partner: How a Female-Fronted Foundation Approaches USAID Partnership
Megan (Meg) Smith
Megan (Meg) Smith is a Communications Specialist for Locally Led Development Initiatives in USAID's Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub.
Tucked amidst rice terraces and forests lining the hills of Tublay, a municipality of Benguet in the Philippines’s Luzon island, stand the training center and offices of Alay sa Kapatid Foundation (AKAP). An all-female-run civil society organization, AKAP works directly with local communities to facilitate sustainable access to water.
In 2019, AKAP began working with USAID and its partner, LINC, to understand what water means to communities, and what it would take to improve water security, by conducting a social network analysis. After meeting with over 120 community representatives, AKAP found that connections between all actors in the water management system — from local water associations to municipal government officials — needed to be strengthened in order to address the inequitable water distribution, lack of information exchange, and physical infrastructure, among other challenges.
Now, AKAP works directly with USAID’s Local Works program on the Facilitating Local Access to Water (FLOW) activity in the Philippines to catalyze local solutions for sustainable water management. Where there had been conflict and competition over access to water, AKAP began by facilitating community consultations with government representatives where community elders were able to share traditional values – enabling all involved in water distribution to get on the same page together. As a well-known local organization, the time AKAP dedicates to building partnerships within and amongst the communities they work and ensuring community voices lead the work are enabling FLOW to lead to greater sustainability than past projects.
A First-Time USAID Awardee
Because FLOW represents AKAP’s first time partnering directly with USAID, they needed to go through a series of initial steps before finalizing their award. One early challenge they faced was in registering their organization in U.S. government systems, including in the annual registration through the System for Awards Management (SAM). When registering, each system in the process requires identical spelling, spacing, and punctuation. After inputting some entries slightly different than in their initial registration, AKAP recommends documenting earlier entries earlier to reference when renewing SAM registration, like through this Key Information Log.
Like other non-U.S. new partners, AKAP also went through the Non-U.S. Organization Pre-Award Survey (NUPAS) process, a comprehensive assessment that helps USAID understand an organization’s legal, financial, and operational capacity to manage a USAID award before it is finalized. Though AKAP had systems in place for program management, personnel, financial management, and procurement processes, the NUPAS revealed that they needed to strengthen a few areas in order to partner with USAID. Based on AKAP’s experience, Florita “Flor” Paragas, the Chief of Party of FLOW and AKAP Executive Director, recommended that “incoming new potential USAID partners should be prepared with legal papers and other government required documents [specific to the country of business], organizational governance [or a] Manual of Operations (program management, personnel, organigram, financial management, and procedures), personnel with technical computer skills – and patience, openness, and willingness to learn.” Once the AKAP team addressed the NUPAS findings, they were able to co-create, finalize, and launch the project in partnership with USAID.
As a new partner, learning about USAID’s requirements for work plans and progress reports also presented a challenge for AKAP’s team. “It was a lot of work to create everything from scratch while learning about them,” shared Paragas. Throughout both planning and implementation, the USAID Agreement Officer’s Representative (AOR) proactively made herself available to support. AKAP emphasized the importance of her understanding and flexibility to work with them amidst challenges, including occasional internet outages. For example, the AKAP team shared that “for one quarterly report, [the AOR] left really helpful edits that prompted us to truly be conscious of who is reading.” For other organizations that might face challenges, the AKAP team emphasized: “When faced with any difficulty, be open and feel free to seek assistance from concerned USAID personnel. They are always happy to assist and willing to go out of their way.”
Empowering Their Communities – and Themselves
The AKAP team is dedicated to elevating female leadership through FLOW. “Our philosophy is respect of human worth, dignity, and self determination of all individuals,” beamed Paragas. The AKAP team noted that they are confident in who they are as women, recognizing both their personal strengths and weaknesses. Throughout their efforts — from training to partnering — they integrate gender equality to ensure all genders have the chance to share their views. In their region, “women are on the frontline of development initiatives,” affirms Maria “Tita” Butz, AKAP’s Field Coordinator, adding that in some areas, “women [are claiming] their rights to water, which they did not until now.”
From engaging dedicated community-based facilitators who volunteer to socialize and encourage community members to get involved, to association members, who support their community organizations through dedicated time, women at all levels exercise leadership to push their initiatives forward.
Katherine Agyao finds fulfillment volunteering as a community-based facilitator with FLOW to support her barangay, a small Philippine administrative division. “It’s a gift to be a part of developing a community,” she shares after witnessing her municipality first hand. After leaving and missing her home for six years, she returned to her barangay and began her volunteer work. Already familiar with AKAP and its work, she was excited for the opportunity to support efforts to address water scarcity with her neighbors. As one of FLOW’s community-based facilitators, she organizes, supports, and facilitates events, meetings, trainings, and more with her community water association. “I see [our association] shining,” she smiles, hoping that they can eventually secure their own office to implement sustainable water systems for future generations.
In a nearby barangay, the initial social network analysis enabled Geraldine Yampan to strengthen her leadership within her community water association in her community, now serving as an active board member. She found her biggest source of inspiration during the first training facilitated by AKAP focused on self reflection and social awareness. “Know yourself first before knowing others,” she emphasizes. “It’s not just for the association or local government unit, but the individual.” Since then, she has taken strides to strengthen the management and partnership capacity of her water association, sharing that, “Before, we didn’t know how to gain access to some [Filippino funding] agencies, [but now] we can be more empowered.” Volunteering about half of her time to the water association, she supports both women and men to get involved in helping strengthen the community’s water supply and partnerships they create with other neighboring associations and the local government.
Local Leadership Matters
AKAP, founded in 1991 as a relief and rehabilitation organization, had been well-known and recognized as a leader in the area for years, while its staff had established extensive experience working in and with the community for years. Field Coordinator Butz has been able to build on her relationships with farmer cooperatives that she has maintained since first starting to work with AKAP at age 19. Working closely with Butz in her community-based facilitator role, Agyao notes, “It is a huge help that AKAP is a local organization.” Understanding the local context, speaking the local dialect, and already having established credibility with different stakeholders has enabled AKAP to be a trusted partner and facilitator.
Beyond their deep relationships within harder-to-reach communities, AKAP noted that before FLOW, other organizations made efforts to address water insecurity issues, but the systems didn’t last. Some organizations and physical infrastructure were created hastily without the resources to ensure sustainability. Instead, these failed water systems ultimately became sources of conflict. One water association member shared that community relationships were not nurtured as the water distribution systems were built; without the social infrastructure to manage the physical, the short-lived projects would worsen inequity of water distribution.
AKAP saw the opportunity to facilitate joint partnerships to generate water systems that could symbolize unity and cooperation. AKAP takes a different approach: prioritize grassroots capacity strengthening and relationship building to capitalize on human infrastructure. Paragas notes, “The capacity strengthening activities conducted by FLOW… and [their own] reflections enabled the community to realize that indifference will not solve community problems on water,” and they now “believe in themselves to address issues affecting them.” With a “strong belief in self-determination,” as Paragas puts it, as well as collaborative engagements among communities, local officials, nongovernmental organizations, and the business sector, emerging solutions push toward sustainability.
Get a snapshot of your organization’s current capacity to work with USAID by taking the WorkWithUSAID.org Pre-Engagement Assessment, a 46-question self-assessment. Stay up to date with USAID’s work in the Philippines on the Mission’s Facebook, Twitter, and webpage. For more about how USAID is advancing locally led development, subscribe to the Locally Led Development Initiatives newsletter.