USAID's Local Capacity Strengthening Policy: Start with the Why
Laura Alvarez is USAID/Paraguay’s Specialist for both Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning and Local Capacity Strengthening. She was a featured speaker for the Agency launch event for the new USAID Local Capacity Strengthening Policy and has shared Mission capacity strengthening experiences for the 2021 Collaborating, Learning & Adapting (CLA) Case Competition.
Asking Different Questions
A few weeks ago, I was visiting with a local partner team and talking with them about their goals. I asked, “Why are you doing this work? What do you want to achieve?”
The group looked at me in silence. Eventually, one person responded, “You know, this is the first time anyone is caring about us, not just caring about the project.”
To me, that encapsulates USAID’s new Local Capacity Strengthening (LCS) Policy. It starts from the first conversation. We’re no longer saying, “Here is the program, and here are the results we want,” and then involving partners by asking “How do you want to do it? What do you need from us?” That way usually would lead to us creating manuals and training and then measuring performance on how many manuals were handed out.
There are benefits to that and maybe partners learned some skills, but an even better way to strengthen capacity is to reframe the relationship, starting with a more philosophical approach to the objective: the “Why.” After we can answer that, we can get to the “How.”
This is not a new approach. The policy is new, but the vision is not. We've been moving toward it and adapting the way we work for several years. I remember when I joined USAID in 2016, the Agency was already talking about a new way of supporting capacity strengthening. What this policy does is validate the approach—and expand on it.
Since I work on both capacity strengthening and monitoring, evaluation, and learning, I’m interested in both strengthening and accountability. By asking different questions from the outset, we change the way we think about performance, and that means we have to measure and track it differently.
Not everyone loves the idea that we change how we measure performance. It can be controversial to take a less-standardized approach. But I don’t think you can do standardized measurement for capacity strengthening because I don’t think standardized capacity strengthening exists. It has to be customized. The country, culture, and local system have to be considered. That takes time.
This is why I am a huge champion of the policy’s guidance on more flexibility in measuring performance. This is particularly emphasized in Principle 3, “Plan for and measure performance improvement in collaboration with local partners.” The principle lets us think beyond collecting a standard set of metrics while continuing to adhere to the larger structure. We should ask our partners what they want to measure because it needs to matter to them. They are in a better position to understand their goals. Now we can adapt our process to track those personalized performance milestones.
Granted, sometimes partners won’t know how to answer the larger questions or be able to tell us right away what should be measured because they haven’t worked this way before. This is where coaching can come in. That’s a way to embed capacity strengthening in the process.
We can help partners through the process of defining their objectives through trust-based and appreciative relationships. For instance, when reviewing the draft strengthening plan of a new local implementing partner, we noticed they submitted a list of processes to undertake, but no clear improved performance objectives they wanted to achieve. They came up with this list of “What” they wanted to do after undertaking a SWOT (“strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats”) self-assessment, but we went back and asked them “Why” they wanted to do it.
This led to a much deeper conversation. “Where do you see yourself in three years?” was how we reframed the question. So besides taking into consideration the results of their SWOT assessment, they also talked about the bigger vision they had for their own organizational growth. Instead of talking about the process, we were talking about objectives. It turned out they had big ambitions.
They wanted to become an independent think tank, recognized locally and regionally for their expertise on Rule of Law consolidation. This was much bigger than what they had considered in their original strengthening plan. We were able to support them in co-creating the plan to get there, taking into consideration the limited time and resources that USAID provided to help them achieve this objective. Together, we designed the steps and talked through how they could be accountable to see through their capacity strengthening plan and performance improvement.
Together, we created a clear road map to follow and devised markers of progress. Then we let them decide how they would hold themselves accountable. This is a departure from the traditional approach to measuring progress. We might normally use a standard set of questions or spreadsheets that needed to be filled out. Instead, we asked them how they measured their own performance.
This is another aspect of the LCS Policy that I find very useful—the idea that it’s more important to leverage a partner’s strengths than to work on their weaknesses. This is especially captured in Principle 5, “Appreciate and build on existing capacities.” These partners know how to track their progress. They don’t always need our fancy tools. We don’t need to spend time teaching them how to use our methods. It doesn’t matter if a partner uses a SWOT analysis or another method, the important element is that they define the progress goals to which they are accountable.
In the case of this particular partner, we are a year into a three-year project and they are well on their way. There are still steps ahead and we will likely continue to adapt, but they are excited and motivated to get there because they are working toward the goals they want to reach.
This has been a new way of operationalizing capacity strengthening.
Next up, we can work together on developing long-term sustainability plans for post-USAID partnership. That's where they want to go, and we want to help them get there.
For additional resources on measuring USAID capacity strengthening efforts, visit the CBLD-9 Indicator Resources Page (USAID’s standard indicator on capacity strengthening) and the Guide to Distinguishing Tools Used for Local Capacity Strengthening.
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.