The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently released its first-ever Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, signaling further commitment to the principles of localizing foreign assistance. We commend the release of this policy, and have reflected on our evolving approach to local capacity strengthening and identified four ways to strengthen our work in line with the new policy.
- Start with the local system and strengthen networks: Understanding the local system can inform why and in what circumstances, local capacity strengthening contributes to lasting change. Our Building Healthy Cities project conducted several exploratory data collection activities, including a political economy analysis, and gathered partners from government, civil society, the private sector, academia, communities, and funding agencies to explore and validate data related to improving the social determinants of health in urban contexts. We then developed system maps to understand causal relationships between actors within the system to co-design steps to find ways to address social and environmental determinants of health.
- Focus on mutual learning and accountability: The policy emphasizes building reciprocal, mutually beneficial partnerships based on trust and respect. At JSI, we view the capacity strengthening process as a capacity exchange with our partners, and we focus on mutual learning and accountability. We co-develop principles of engagement to define how we would like to work together and how we can reflect routinely on the partnership. We also use tools such as the organizational capacity assessment, a guided self-assessment that encourages learning between partners.
- Shift power to local actors: The policy acknowledges serious power imbalances that may cause local actors to be uncomfortable negotiating partnerships and expressing concerns. At JSI, we apply Reimagining Technical Assistance, a concept we developed with a diverse group of partners that acknowledges power asymmetries and provides a framework for shifting norms, behaviors, and structures. For example, under the Tuberculosis Implementation Framework Agreement (TIFA), we work to mitigate the inherent funder-grantee power dynamics by having the national TB control programs define what they want funding for. We then work with them to co-design the grants, including defining key milestones that ensure grant outputs respond to the objectives and strategies of the national TB control program.
- Measure performance in collaboration with local partners: The policy highlights the importance of collaborating with local partners to plan for and measure performance improvement. Under the MOMENTUM Knowledge Accelerator, we conducted a landscape review to explore how to measure capacity and how it links to performance. The review yielded guidance on how to work with partners to develop reliable, easy-to-use measures that capture the role of performance improvement, resilience, and capacity at individual, community, organization, and system levels.
USAID recognizes that implementation of its policy will require structural change and strategic initiatives to enable staff to work in new ways. One potential challenge is the inherent tension between USAID’s two localization targets: one to increase direct funding to local partners; the other to have local communities lead co-design, priority setting, implementation, and/or program evaluation. Increasing direct funding could put more pressure on compliance, and the second goal will require more comprehensive capacity strengthening focused on organizational performance.
Accompanied by structural changes and strategic initiatives, the policy provides a pathway to achieve both targets, but balancing the two efforts will be critical. Partnerships based on mutuality will require more learning on how to implement these principles while mitigating barriers to doing so. This will include accepting a higher degree of risk; more flexibility with USAID rules and regulations; and longer time horizons.
Learn more about our capacity strengthening work.
By Matthew Osborne-Smith, Director of the Center for Capacity Development