What Changes Are Local Partners Asking For?
What does localization mean to local partners, and how can large prime organizations best support their local partners? That's what CARE wanted to know when they surveyed their partners about what could be done better.
Read more below about what CARE found out from the survey, as well as how the results differed from what they expected.
This article was originally published on USAID's Learning Lab Blog on January 25, 2023.
What Changes Are Local Partners Asking For?
By Emily Janoch | USAID's Learning Lab Blog
January 25, 2023
CARE has made some big commitments to localization, decolonization, and anti-racism. We’ve signed the Pledge for Change to drive more decision making and resources to the places that are most affected by crisis and poverty. We believe in being locally led, and globally connected, which implies changing the way we think about partnerships.
As everyone knows, pledges are (relatively) easy to make. Having a vision for equitable partnerships is a great place to start, but the devil is always in the details. To live out our commitments, and truly transform the sector, we’re going to have to make major changes at all levels of the organization.
One place we’re starting is in our policies, systems, and procedures. It’s all well and good to have a commitment to equality, but if our accounting systems still treat partners like subordinates who just have to act out our vision, we won’t get where we need to go. In August, CARE launched a survey asking our partners what they most wanted us to change. Sixty-nine partners answered an anonymous survey to tell us what we should be doing differently. In the interests of transparency and accountability, we’re sharing what they asked from us.
Their top 5 asks are:
- Pay more, pay early. The number one request (77 percent of partners) was to send two rounds of funding upfront, and then sending the third round after round 1 has been accounted for in financial reports. Holding the second round of funding hostage to the approval of a report, which can take weeks, leaves funding gaps in operations that partners often cannot cover.
- Focus more on support than tiny errors. 64 percent of partners said CARE should release the next round of funding even if there are small errors or omissions in reports, and help partners correct the errors, rather than rejecting reports and keeping money locked up until all financial reports are perfect. (This still means CARE has a zero-tolerance policy for fraud; it just gives a little more flexibility on minor details that are not financially significant).
- Sign simpler agreements. Simplified agreements instead of very complex partnership documents are easier for partners to process. That was a priority of 62 percent of partners.
- Be more flexible, and let partners make their own decisions. 54 percent of partners wanted more flexible grants where they got to decide how to spend the money, rather than CARE making the choices and dictating how money gets spent.
- Be a partner, not a donor. 54 percent of partners wanted CARE to act more like a supportive partner, and less like a top-down donor. In fact, they want CARE to train our own staff in how to act like a mutual partner who learns together.
It’s already a big step for us—the first time we’ve ever flat out asked at this scale what would make us a better partner so we can actually change. But here’s what’s especially fascinating about the survey: if CARE had made the calls ourselves, we would have been wrong. At the same time we sent the survey to partners, CARE staff answered the same questions. And we came up with the wrong answers.
Here’s the difference with what CARE staff thought partners wanted, and what partners actually asked for. While we had three of the top five in common, the piece partners wanted most didn’t show up in CARE’s top five. It shows how very critical an exercise like this is—because even when we’re trying to do it right, we still don’t know what partners want unless we ask first.
What else did we hear? The survey also offered space for partners to give us answers that weren’t in the options on our list. In the free text, a few of issues that rose to the top that we hadn’t even offered were:
- Pay faster. Partners want us to get money to them on time, or at least clearly explain why we’re late and what’s happening. Paying sufficient funding up front, avoiding payment delays, and making sure we don’t leave partners with a funding gap is critical. Partners do not want to (nor can many of them do so) pre-finance money, and they do want to get a fair share of administrative costs covered.
- Trust more. Partners want CARE to treat them like they are trusted partners who will spend money responsibly. Heavy procurement processes, the low approval ceiling for grants, and general micro-management are all reasons partners feel that CARE does not trust them.
- Be clearer about what happens with exchange rates. Partners want to know how CARE makes decisions when exchange rates impact their budgets, and how CARE decides to modify activities and partner budgets when foreign exchange gains or losses have significant implications for partner activities.
- Reduce reporting barriers. Requiring simpler reports, fewer reports, and sometimes no reports would leave partners more time to deliver on the work and would make them feel more trusted. Increasingly demanding administrative burdens from CARE are frustrating partners.
Where to next?
This is just the first step on a journey. We have to take action if this means more than an interesting data set. Here’s what CARE is planning to do now:
- Putting words into action. Select at least two process/systems/procedures changes to achieve or make significant progress towards by end of FY23. For example, we can work to simplify contracting mechanisms, inventory the Internal audit non-compliance findings related to CARE's own policy and suggest what policy changes or process changes are needed; or provide guidance to clarify the existing policy (such as what is "must" do; versus "should" do). Those are just possible examples of tangible change we can make now.
- Build our risk tolerance. To enable change, CARE needs to grapple with how risk tolerance thresholds are set and who determines them. Staff need to feel confident that risk taking/risk sharing, piloting, and learning to be a better partner is an organizational priority.
- Manage risk more effectively Not only do we need to feel more comfortable with taking appropriate risks at all levels, but we also need to manage risk more appropriately—not always adding stringent compliance options that burden partners without managing risk effectively. We need to focus on effectiveness, impact, and partnership and take actions appropriate to the level of risk—rather than treating all risk as equal.
- Advocate for broader change with donors and peers. Often, we feel bound by donor compliance requirements, and those requirements may be set without a detailed knowledge of how those requirements translate into constraints for partners. This survey is one piece of a growing body of evidence and voices that we should be using to shift the whole system towards one of transparency, equality, mutuality, and trust. We know these are critical steps, and we will only make progress if we prioritize them.
- Expand the consultation. This survey was in English, French, and Spanish, and required an internet connection to complete. That’s already selecting for a specific set of our partners, and not everyone can participate. Building broader tools for more inclusive consultation across the whole spectrum of partners1 is a big part of what’s next for our long-term commitment to improving the work with partners.
We also need to hold ourselves accountable. The Pledge for Change is one cornerstone to getting there. We’ll also report what we learn from the next steps in this journey by writing another blog in a few months based on what we tried and how it went.
1 See Annex C in the CI Partnership Paper.
For more perspectives on localization and productive partnerships, check out other articles on our News & Insights blog, where we share voices from throughout the USAID partner ecosystem.