USAID's Local Capacity Strengthening Policy: Creating More “Coffee Breaks”
This is the first in a series of blogs about how USAID’s programming will be affected by the Agency’s first-ever Local Capacity Strengthening Policy.
David Jacobstein is a Democracy Specialist in the Cross-Sectoral Programs Division of the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Center at USAID. He focuses on issues of capacity strengthening, systems thinking, political economy, and cross-sectoral integration, and was one of the drafters of the new USAID Local Capacity Strengthening Policy.
Where I Began with Local Capacity Strengthening
Before I joined USAID, I worked in development and local capacity strengthening on the implementing side and found myself often frustrated by the donor community’s bureaucratic requirements. I saw too much emphasis on reporting, which distracted grantees from core work or sent support to organizations that prioritized compliance over impact. I became vocal about what I thought were straightforward fixes and convinced that if the donors would just listen, local communities would benefit.
Then USAID hired me to work on local capacity. Essentially, my bluff was called.
What I quickly realized: I didn’t have all the answers and I was not alone in my certainty that locally centered work would yield locally centered benefits. In fact, USAID was filled with smart, experienced practitioners who were exploring innovative approaches. And there were already people considering how to gather the learnings from these successes and create an overarching, unified strategy with tangible guidance for all the work we do. I joined that effort and was part of a multi-year, multi-member team whose work came to fruition last October, with USAID’s first-ever Local Capacity Strengthening Policy.
It’s about Humility
Groundbreaking as a policy, Local Capacity Strengthening is fundamentally different from similarly named and similarly intentioned efforts. This difference is what makes it so valuable—it challenges us to change.
It’s not about finding more local partners or helping local actors work with us. It’s about USAID learning how to support them.
The common element throughout the policy is humility. We have to bring more humility to our relationships. We need to reconceive our role and give up power. That’s uncomfortable, of course. But another way to look at it is that we’re choosing to invest in local capacity because we see development in those actors that are going to lead change. A year, two years, five years, ten years down the road, their work is what will have made the difference. One of the things I’m proud of is that the policy helps us center our work on the aspirations and goals of local organizations.
Of course, there are many at USAID who are already practicing the principles of the policy. There are so many good examples, and we have a number of case studies that exemplify the principles. But we’re not doing it consistently at scale. We would know if we were. This policy is intended to give us all a framework to guide our work and an opportunity to consider tangible changes and challenge any lingering mindset that we already know best.
There are a lot of good ideas and examples of reframing our work in the policy and the case studies. If there’s one thing this policy changes immediately, I’d hope it removes our focus on so much reporting. Sometimes data collection can feel like a game we’re forcing our partners to play. Being good stewards of USAID funding is ingrained in our work. But stewardship is not the same as data collection, and the most important outcomes are often hard to see.
I always think about an assessment a colleague and I did several years ago. It was in a country where we had organized regional trainings for community activists to learn technical skills. Our priorities changed, and the work ground to a halt. In a retrospective assessment, I asked our partners what they missed about USAID’s partnership and specifically the training.
The answer: the coffee breaks.
That sounds bad—and, at first, I thought it was. But as our interviewees explained, I understood our impact differently. They said that during coffee breaks they were able to meet other local activists, understand their work, and build solidarity across communities. This informal networking helped local organizations make connections, collaborate, and learn from each other.
The training was fine, and helped many gain skills, but the connections forged over coffee had a more profound impact. When the government tried to impose a repressive law that would have hobbled nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), these new coalitions activated their networks and successfully fought the law from taking hold. Hundreds of community groups flooded the ministry’s fax lines and successfully prevented the law from passing parliament. It was a huge win and it came about, in part, because of the trainings. But not the way we thought it would. Facilitating the local collaboration was what successfully strengthened local capacity.
An important learning in the process was understanding that our assessments for the training had not previously captured this. We had captured how many local actors had been trained – and that’s fine and good that some local actors had new skills. But that’s not really telling us about capacity strengthening.
If we do our job at the outset in making good partnerships—and I expect we will continue to excel at partnering with well-intentioned, smart, savvy locals who are driving change—the next step is to extend more trust.
I invite readers, including USAID colleagues, to explore the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy. Even if you have embraced the principles and employ them in your work, there may be room for learning. USAID will be releasing a series of micro-learnings on the policy that can help us all understand where we may have blind spots.
More often, I think, people will find opportunities to make tweaks or even to try a different approach to show more humility or mutuality. Those little changes to our work, collectively, will be how we achieve capacity strengthening at scale.
There will be many opportunities in the coming weeks and months to learn about how to reframe our work, and how to learn further from each other and our partners. When we scale this across sectors, countries, and communities, we will see that the effort to change ourselves will have been worth it. Better local capacity strengthening will lead to long-term, lasting impact.
Read the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy and check out this blog about the policy’s October 2022 launch. Also, bookmark this guide, which aims to help USAID staff and partners understand which tools are most useful for capacity strengthening efforts.
To better understand and apply the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, check out USAID's local capacity strengthening microlearnings, which are centered around seven mutually-reinforcing principles about why and how to invest in the capacity of local partners to better achieve inclusive and locally led development.