USAID's Local Capacity Strengthening Policy: Championing Local Changemakers

Eight young people wearing blue, purple, and white stand and sit near a project signPhoto credit: Youth Response for Social Change

This post is the third entry in a series on how USAID’s first-ever Local Capacity Strengthening Policy will affect programming.

Patrick Phoso is USAID/Malawi’s Program Management Specialist for Local Capacity Development in the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Office.

Changing the Definition of Success

I’ve been working to strengthen local capacity in Malawi for my entire career. And after witnessing too many missed opportunities, I have to say that I am now so excited about the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy

For most of my career, the donor community—not just USAID, but the whole donor community—had a specific way of measuring success. They would choose a goal, set up indicators, and focus on how partners could meet them. When donors left, the organizations we partnered with could not function without our support. So many struggled to sustain the work, and some efforts even collapsed.

USAID’s Local Capacity Strengthening Policy envisions success measured by how effectively organizations can meet their own targets—and keep meeting them long after we leave. The policy focuses on giving communities and citizens agency to respond to issues that affect their quality of life. 

In Malawi, we have seen how this can work. A few years ago, those of us in USAID/Malawi looked around and asked ourselves why our country was not developing at the same rate as our neighbors. We knew there were challenges in geographical positioning (Malawi is a landlocked country), the education system, and governance—but none were enough to explain the lack of development. We did everything the donors prescribed, but it still wasn’t enough. What were we missing?

At this time, USAID’s Local Works program was working with specific Missions to encourage local partners to drive innovation and experimentation in development. We wondered if things would be different if we tried this approach. We applied for the Local Works funding and received it.

Shifting Perspective

The first thing we did was send out a call to local organizations in Malawi that announced the resource opportunity and requested their help in identifying challenges and solutions.

We recognized potential barriers and made two changes to how we traditionally do calls for expressions of interest. We allowed responses in local languages as well as English and asked them not to include a budget. We wanted them to focus on the challenge and the solution; the budget could come later.

We received more than 200 expressions of interest. 

It was a terrific response, but far too many for us to move forward with. We narrowed the concept notes down by looking for manageable projects, grouping applications by issue, and encouraging coalition forming. We did not want to force local organizations to do things our way—but we recognized that some groups could accomplish more together. 

We called the finalists together for a roundtable where we worked to understand their perspectives and what they were trying to accomplish. We launched a co-creation process where USAID brings together organizations and individuals to find solutions to development challenges and foster local ownership. None of us in Malawi had done co-creation, so we brought in facilitators with experience to lead us through four co-creation sessions. We worked together to identify the challenges and opportunities to use local resources to realize solutions. 

This process narrowed our potential partners to ten local organizations from the initial 200.

Confronting Child Marriage

One of the nascent local organizations that inspired me is Youth Response for Social Change (YRSC). YRSC led a coalition of other local organizations that all wanted to tackle child marriage. The other organizations included Forum for Youth Development (FOYODE) and Nayuchi AIDS Network Services (NANES).

Despite being outlawed, child marriage in Malawi is a major problem. Forty-two percent of girls are married before age 18, and nine percent are married before 15.  Other efforts have focused on healthcare and services for girls who are already married. We worked with YRSC to identify the need to address prevention.

Together, we built a strategy that set goals for raising awareness, preventative actions, and addressing the root causes. We established milestones for accountability and progress tracking.

Once launched, YRSC worked faster and more effectively than we would have because they speak the local language and know the gatekeepers, families, and girls who are most vulnerable. If I were to walk into a village and say, “Child marriage is terrible. Here are the reasons, and here’s why you have to stop it,” people would look at me as an outsider who doesn’t understand the culture. The young people who work with YRSC are internal changemakers.

They have been able to talk with families to understand what is driving a decision to send their daughters into an early marriage. For example, if the family doesn’t have enough food, YRSC can connect them to other resources in the community. If the family doesn’t have enough money to send a daughter to school, YRSC can help them fund books and materials. When they heard that several girls had stopped going to school because they didn’t have access to sanitary products, they helped community women start up a collective that makes reusable pads from cast-off fabric.

After its first year, YRSC prevented at least 37 child marriages. Twenty-seven of the girls went back to school. Ten were not eligible to return, so YRSC connected them to life-skills training and literacy classes.

The activity is now in its second year, and YRSC is working to build a sustainable organization beyond USAID support. They are building internal systems, including recruitment, having recently recruited a former lecturer of child psychology from one of Malawi’s top universities. I asked this professor why she would leave such a prestigious job. She said that she loved lecturing but recognized that university students were usually from wealthy families. Having grown up in a rural community and seen too many child marriages herself, she felt she could make a bigger difference by working with YRSC.

Lessons Learned

Ultimately, the USAID/Malawi Mission found it more important to focus on ideas rather than eloquence when addressing persistent development challenges. Local organizations have great ideas, but without previous direct donor partnerships, they aren’t used to articulating themselves in the same ways as established partners. However, when I had a chance to go out and meet the applicants and listen to their ideas, I understood what they wanted to do and saw that they knew where they wanted to go. I think we miss a lot when we judge these partners in terms of eloquence, not the capacity to make a difference.

Something I learned that I believe is captured in this Policy is that when we make an effort to appreciate existing abilities, and we work to support the local vision of progress, we can truly strengthen capacity. When we can strengthen capacity, the work will more likely outlive our involvement.

I have a lot of hope. I am not celebrating just yet, but I can imagine that in four or five years, we can come back and see these vibrant organizations in their communities. When I retire, I imagine visiting Youth Response for Social Change and seeing as much passion and impact there, maybe even more, as I do today.

Read the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy and check out this blog about the policy’s October 2022 launch. Also, bookmark this guide to discover practical tools for capacity strengthening efforts.


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