Ivica Vasev is a Project Development and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Specialist at USAID’s Program Office in North Macedonia. He managed three organizational capacity strengthening and performance improvement programs over a period of 12 years and is currently the team lead for the Mission’s Local Works program.
Changing the World One Partnership at Time
I use a quote in my email sign-off that’s a blend of others. It encapsulates what I’ve seen over the years: “Helping a community help itself might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for that community.”
This sentiment is critical for us in the development community. The definition of “change” can be different for different organizations, but for a community positive change is a tangible thing. It might be more access to water, or a new road, or an effective education campaign. The Local Capacity Strengthening Policy captures this. It emphasizes the importance of local leadership and ownership from concept to result.
And it goes even further. The policy acknowledges that in order to trust local actors to deliver impact, it is incumbent on the development community to change. We have to recognize our role is often to support, not necessarily to lead. To paraphrase one of the key points in the policy: Local capacity strengthening can only be meaningful and sustainable if we support our partners’ ability to navigate their challenges.
A Road and a Connection
The reality is we exist in a system that has long trusted U.S.-based organizations more than those in the countries where we work. This has resulted in local organizations having to navigate two sets of regulations and two very different terrains—those of their home country and those of USAID—if they want to work with us.
Smaller, local entities have often been overwhelmed by documentation and other requirements that can come with our funding. I have seen local actors go into excruciating detail to separate out billing for rent, salaries, and phones. I’ve even seen staff of local organizations asked to document half a dollar for tolls.
The perception can be that when we say we are “building capacity,” we mean we are teaching partners to follow our rules. In reality, working on that kind of capacity is relatively surface level and doesn’t respond to local organizations’ own priorities.
If we want to have real partnerships with local communities and organizations, we need to be willing to trust more and work as allies with local partners as they navigate USAID’s unique system, processes, and regulations.
In North Macedonia, for instance, we recently worked with a local partner who wanted to build a road to an isolated community. It was the type of project that would change the world for the people who lived there. The road was a clear community priority. We have Local Works funding and programming support available. The partner worked with local environmental specialists and engineers fully supported by the municipal authorities who approved the plans.
But our process was not set up to fully utilize local environmental specialists and engineers. Before construction could start, USAID also had to conduct its own review, from Washington.
This could have been a major obstacle for the local partners. But we in the Mission worked to find ways to streamline communications between USAID and local partners and offer hands-on, step-by-step support so that local partners felt empowered, not inhibited. The joint effort led to immediate results. And it set a foundation for future partnerships. We continue to work to refine processes, but already our Mission and our local partners are working together in ways that go far beyond the typical donor-grantee relationship.
From Philosophy to Reality
This is another area of the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy that I see as a big step in the right direction. If we, across the Agency, embrace the idea that local context and systems matter—and we can work in conjunction with local laws and regulations—I believe we can have more fruitful partnerships.
This is, of course, easier said than done: USAID activities must comply with both USAID and host-country regulations, and the latter are different in every country in which we work. We can make things easier by interpreting our regulations more flexibly and streamlining processes, whenever possible. We can challenge ourselves to extend trust to our partners, not just in their program implementation, but also in their paperwork. We can recognize that just because processes are different does not mean they are less reliable.
To me, this is how we can move local capacity strengthening from philosophy and policy to reality. If we create trusting, equitable partnerships instead of donor-grantee relationships and we prioritize USAID accountability to local actors, we can truly work ourselves out of a job. And while we're at it, we can help partners change the world for their communities.