Episode 22: USAID’s localisation agenda: money, power and partnerships. Sarah Rose interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Sarah Rose introduces us to USAID’s approach to localisation as one of the biggest funding partners amongst bilateral donors. Sarah emphasises the importance of gathering the entire global development community in order to rethink roles and reform practices for localisation to be effective.

Sarah talks us through USAID’s journey towards localisation, their time-bound measurable goals, and how to integrate localisation into every aspect of USAID’s work portfolio. USAID is working to tackle barriers to funding, by integrating multiple languages, reducing reporting burdens and risk assessment requirements. 

We talk about how USAID can think about strengthening their own capacity as an organisation to adapt to localisation efforts and integrate learnings from the Global South or majority world. Sarah emphasises the importance of establishing a “community of practice” amongst USAID to share guidance and support.

Episode 22: Full Transcript

The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 22

USAID’s localisation agenda: funding, capacity strengthening and decision-making. Sarah Rose interviewed. 

Sarah: [00:00:00] What I think is important to underscore is that there is a role for everyone in advancing locally led development. International organisations, for example, can play a crucial role in capacity strengthening and mentoring and coaching of local organisations. A lot of the local partners that we’ve talked to have expressed a value that they place on some of these relationships that they’ve had with international partners as well. International partners can also bring this unmatched ability to integrate local actors into international networks and markets as well, international private sector organisations and corporations, they can be important sources of financing or innovation and connection to markets that can help sustain positive change. 

Kate: Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird and I’d like to welcome you to this episode of the Power Shift: Decolonising Development. Today we’re talking to Sarah Rose from USAID about their localisation agenda. In this episode we discuss how USAID is localising, what it’s doing to create localisation, and how it’s localising both funding and decision making with a greater proportion of its projects and programs being led from the Global South or majority world.

We’re thinking about [00:01:00] how USAID will work in genuine partnerships that brings agency and power to real development actors close to the action, and the good practices that they’re seeking to implement in their work. We’ll talk about capacity development for Global North and minority world organisations and individuals in this process of localisation, and also the implications for organisational change which is slow, messy, and contested, both organisational change and procedural change for organisations like USAID. We’ll also be thinking about the shared commitment that 18 bilateral funders and 15 philanthropic foundations have for this localisation agenda. And we’ll be talking about the link, or lack of it, between localisation and an anti racist and decolonised way of thinking. Listen on for more.

Welcome to the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and activists to share ideas, inspire change, and identify tools for practical action. [00:02:00] I’m Professor Kate Bird, Director of the Development Hub, and today I’m speaking to Sarah Rose, who is Senior Advisor for Localisation in the Office of the USAID Administrator.

Prior to coming to USAID, she was a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, where her research focused on U. S. development policy and aid effectiveness, including localisation. Previously, Sarah was a monitoring and evaluation specialist at the Health Office of the USAID mission in Mozambique.

She worked at the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Department of Policy and Evaluation. For more on Sarah and USAID’s localisation agenda, click on the show notes below this episode. So Sarah, we’re going to go straight into questions now and I’d like to hear a little bit more about your work on localisation.

USAID has been identified as a sector leader amongst the bilateral donors in terms of your efforts to localise. Do you think this is an accurate representation? 

Sarah: So first of all, thank you so much for having me today, Kate. It’s really a privilege to be able to join you to talk about USAID’s localisation effort and where that fits in the broader movement that we see happening.

So USAID has really redoubled its commitment to shifting funding and shifting decision making [00:03:00] power to the people, to the organisations, to the institutions that are really driving change in their own countries and in their own communities. So USAID is one of the biggest funding partners, right? So we know that we need to make sure that we use our position, our partnerships, our convening power, to really help catalyze this broader shift to more locally led development. But we’re not alone in doing this. We also see a lot of other funders that are making big commitments and shifting how they work to pursue these goals as well. And so as evidence of this, we have 18 bilateral funders and 15 philanthropic foundations that have endorsed a donor statement on locally led development, which really commits to shifting and sharing power, to working to channel high quality funding as directly as possible to local actors and also to publicly advocate for increased efforts to advance locally led development. And I think this is really important, right? Because individually, none of us has all the answers or all the tools to be able to do this across the ecosystem.

And so really making this shift towards more locally led development and humanitarian response is going to require rethinking roles and reforming policies and practices across the entire [00:04:00] global development community. But just in terms of USAID, we really are working hard on putting these commitments into action.

And so one of the things, I think, that sets us apart in some ways is that we have two time-bound measurable goals that we are working towards, and that we want to be held to account for. The first is that a quarter of our funding will go directly to local partners. As of 2022, we’re at 10%. This actually reflects 1. 6 billion dollars going directly to local partners. This is the highest level and percent going to local partners in at least a decade. It’s up from an average of around 5% between 2012 through 2020. But it also underscores that we have a lot further to go to reach our goal. The second goal that we have, though, and this is really equally important, and in many ways it gets more to the root of these localisation efforts is that we want at least half of our programs, at least 50% of our programs to be locally led.

And so what we’re doing right now, starting Monday, is we are piloting a new way of tracking our progress towards this fundamental goal across the many different types of relationships that we might have with local actors, right? Whether they’re recipients of [00:05:00] direct funding from USAID, whether they might be subpartners to an international implementing partner, whether they’re participants in a USAID program, or whether they might be members of a community that are affected by USAID programming.

Kate: Thank you. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about USAID’s journey towards localisation and the factors that stimulated this process of organisational and practice change, because the targets that you’ve just outlined there are quite ambitious. And I imagine there’s been a lot of thinking and a lot of discussion that lies behind those.

Sarah: So thank you for that question. And I actually really like the way that you framed it as a journey, right? Because implicit in that wording is this very important point that this isn’t new, right? So as an international community, we’ve been talking about this decades, right? Country ownership, so to speak, was a key theme that was baked into the Paris Declaration back from the early 2000s, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

And really, local ownership has been part of USAID’s vision, in some ways since it’s very early days, right? But with some more focused initiatives over the last 10 plus years. But there are some things that are different about where we are now. And I’d like to highlight just two of those.

So first is the why, right? The [00:06:00] nature of the imperative. So we are pursuing this localisation reform effort for two reasons. So first, because experience shows that local leadership and ownership of goals and processes are critical for achieving these longer term and more sustained results. The second reason, though, is that we also need to make the aid system more equitable, right?

With the greater inclusion of the people in the communities that our work seeks to affect, right? So there has been a growing global embrace of principles around diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. And this has really contributed to widespread convergence, if not consensus, right?

That we need to change the business of aid, right? We need to grapple with some of these elements that have made it inequitable over the last decades. And so as a global community, I think we’ve made really great strides in the last 10 or so years to really center these issues in our discussions, in our decision making, and how we think about what our role and what our job is.

The second key thing I want to highlight too about this journey, is that because we’ve been seeking to advance some of these localisation goals in various ways, right, for some time, is that we have a lot of lessons that we can draw upon. And so one of the key lessons is that we [00:07:00] need to make sure that we are framing localisation goals more broadly with this emphasis, not just on funding, but also on power.

So, in the past, USAID has emphasised direct local awards. Do we fund local partners directly as the main way to advance localisation? And it’s been the main way that we’ve tracked our progress. But control of resources is absolutely an important aspect of shifting power.

Money is power. So they say it’s really only part of the story, right? And so there is now more emphasis on shifting this power, recognising that the possibility to exercise influence over how development happens for your organisation or your community is really what’s at the heart of locally led development.

And this .Also recognises that again, there are these opportunities to advance local ownership across all these types of relationships with local actors. Certainly, those relationships when they are direct recipients of USAID funding, but also across all these other relationships. I mentioned earlier that right now, 10% of our funding is going directly to local partners. We have a goal of 25%. What that suggests is that even with these ambitious goals, the majority of our funding is still going to be going through international [00:08:00] partners for the short term. And so we can’t leave that aside.

Like we have to think about ways shifting power within those kinds of relationships as well. We also know more about the barriers that local actors face and the challenges that we as an agency face and shifting how we work. And this has actually helped tackle some of these issues in a more informed way.

And then finally, I said I was going to say two things, but I want to just add one or two, because I think this is important, is that another key lesson is really that we need to integrate this lens of locally led development and humanitarian response across our whole portfolio to really think about it as a way of doing business.

So, in the past, USAID has had some localisation specific initiatives, right? And these can be very useful catalysts and learning labs, but localisation needs to be a core way of doing our work and not just seen as a stand-alone initiative that’s something on the side. 

Kate: Thank you so much. And I wonder if I could just loop back to some of the things that you’ve said in your response to that question, you talked about partnerships and local partners and international partners.

And you also talked about how, even if you reach your goal of 25% of funding going directly to local partners, it means that [00:09:00] in the interim, still the majority of funding will be going through international partners and that you need to think about how power works in those relationships. So I’ve got two questions coming out of those statements.

One is about the nature of partnerships because in my own experience, people talk about partnership, but they’re actually meaning contractual relationships. What is it about the way that you work with your partners that makes them partners? And I’ll come to the second question in a moment.

Sarah: Yeah, I think that that’s a great question. So, I think one of the things that we can really point to about this, and again things that we’re striving toward, right, is how do we think about principled approaches to some of these partnerships? Right? And there’s a couple of things that we want to focus on.

One is really around this issue of mutuality, and this issue of mutuality really comes forth in USAID’s local capacity strengthening policy, which is available on our website. It’s a year old. It came out last year and we’ve been working towards implementing that. But what mutuality really does is it helps drive this sort of principle of co-ownership and power sharing, right?

It’s really thought of as this sort of positive condition or sort of a shared mindset about a relationship[00:10:00] where you may have multiple partners that aim to balance power differences, right, by striving for these kinds of reciprocal partnerships. And the way that we achieve this is when USAID and its partners can share or exchange information and then take action toward these shared goals through processes of mutual accountability, co-creation through co-ownership, through sort of joint activities to think about how you define results, what it is that you’re working towards, etcetera. And what that does is it really helps USAID and all of us to learn and grow together on more equal footing.

And I want to highlight just a couple of things I mentioned, that we are starting right now to roll out this process of how we’re going to track our progress towards half of our programs being locally led, right? That’s a bit of an amorphous concept. And we’ve spent a year or so talking to a lot of groups, talking to local partners, talking to community-based organisations in the Global South, who may not be partnering with USAID yet, we’ve talked to our international partners, we’ve talked to USAID staff, to try to really unpack this question of what are the approaches that we as an agency and that our partners can take to be able to create this space for local leadership [00:11:00] across things like priority setting, activity design, implementation, and how we define and measure results.

And so what has emerged as part of that was a set of 14 good practices, we’re calling them, that look at things like not just whether you’re partnering directly with a local actor, but how you’re doing so. Are you doing so in a way that creates that space through either flexible award types, through co-creation processes, etcetera, to be able to elevate that agency and that decision-making power of that local partner?

And it also looks again, beyond those direct partnerships, to be able to think about how can we incorporate some of these locally led principles in ways that we work when there is an international partner, right? That is perhaps in that lead relationship with USAID.

And so this relates to things like, how are we making sure that we are strengthening capacity, like capacity sharing ends up being an important aspect of a lot of our work. But how are we doing that in ways that really reflects the demands and the priorities of those organisations and really seeks to position them well to be stronger players in the system in which they find themselves?

How are we thinking about opportunities for things like participatory monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Are we conducting things like listening tours? Are there accountability mechanisms to local communities in particular to[00:12:00] think about our work?

So that’s one of the ways or several of the ways that we’re thinking about what it means to be a partner right now. 

Kate: Thank you very much. And my next question related to that was, you talked about power and needing to reflect on how power is shared or what the power relationships are between your international partners and local partners.

I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about that, because from my own experience, working with international research teams, this can be quite a knotty issue.

Sarah: Yes, I think that this is a key question, right? And what I want to go back to on this, though, is this point that I made earlier about this idea that we are in a new moment for talking about some of these issues. And so we really see greater convergence around this idea that we need to change the business of aid, in a way that we didn’t see this 10 years ago.

And so a lot of the conversations that I see happening are less around resistance to this idea philosophically, than a question of what this is going to look like and how to reimagine respective roles within that system and change is hard, right? And it doesn’t come quickly and it can be a little bit uncomfortable.

But there is a lot of discussion about how to grapple with that. But I think as part of this conversation, what I think is important to underscore is that[00:13:00] there is a role for everyone in advancing locally led development. International organisations, for example, can play a crucial role in capacity strengthening and mentoring and coaching of local organisations.

A lot of the local partners that we’ve talked to have expressed a value that they place on some of these relationships that they’ve had with international partners as well. International partners can also bring this unmatched ability to integrate local actors into international networks and markets as well, international private sector organisations and corporations, they can be important sources of financing or innovation and connection to markets that can help sustain positive change.

You could think about international faith based groups as well, right? So these tap into vast networks, they maintain very deep roots in a lot of communities where they work, and play essential roles in humanitarian response, but I think with all of this is that the key is really in the relationships, right?

So we need to make sure that we are building on the unique expertise, the resources, the knowledge, the capacities, the networks of all development actors. And we all have capacity, right? We all have expertise and knowledge, but we need to do so in a way that really supports and creates the conditions for local actors to take the lead to address local or in some cases, translocal [00:14:00] challenges.

Kate: Thank you. So, what I heard from that was quite a lot about mutual learning and respecting the relative strengths of the different actors in the ecosystem and moving towards a position where you’re creating the conditions for local actors to really fly and to make a success of what they’re doing in their programs and projects.

So as USAID, you’re one of the world’s largest development actors. So what you do really matters. How would you respond to the critique that localisation and the way that localisation is being progressed by USAID is going to allow the sidestepping of genuinely radical reform, with politics being taken out of the equation, as it sort of institutionalises Global North actors, and there’s a kind of process of shape shifting with Global North actors relocating and registering themselves as Global South actors, while they retain their worldview and understanding of development. So instead of a genuine shifting of power, what we see is the strategic relocation of Northern actors to the majority world. 

Sarah: Yeah, so I really appreciate this question, right? And also really understand this concern and it is a [00:15:00] concern, right, that we share that localisation efforts not just become an exercise in which INGOs create local spinoffs where core decision making power functions really still remain in the United States. It is very important to pay attention to that and to make sure that we are having real conversations about this. We also know that what it means to be local or to be locally led is very nuanced and it’s very contextual. And it’s very hard for us sitting in Washington to define what that means on a case by case basis, right, for a particular organisation. The strength of ties that wholly national organisations may have to the communities that they serve, they may vary, right? But we also recognise that some very local organisations can cultivate transnational ties, they can have international board members, they can register in other countries, maybe for fundraising or for security purposes, right? They may work across borders or associate with international brands, for instance, and all of these may be seen as strategies to think about how they could ensure their effectiveness and resilience. So all of this points to just saying that there’s a wide range of models of ties to international partners from very nominal or historic to very close ties, where decision making power is actually retained in the United States for the most [00:16:00] part.

And our goal is very much to shift away from the latter. This is an important question though for USAID in particular, because we have this agency wide target for direct local funding, and because we have a target, which is an indicator, right, we have to have a specific definition that we use to be able to track our progress.

We know that it’s imperfect, right? It is very much a proxy for a local partnership. Because again, because of the complexity, because of the nuance around what it means to be local, any single definition that you might come up with is going to come with errors of inclusion or exclusion in terms of what we might be capturing.

And so we think that transparency is important and so what we’ve done is we put our full data sets of what we’re talking about when we talk about where we are with our funding to local partners. I mentioned that we have in 2022, 1. 6 billion dollars going to local partners as defined by this indicator, 10% of our acquisitions and assistance obligations, that full data set is online. You can find it at usa.gov/localisation/measurement. And we welcome any and all analysis on that data. But also just want to underscore that continuing to ask these questions and have these conversations is important to really underscore that [00:17:00] the goal of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about these localisation efforts is not again, to just continue to keep funding the same actors in a different guise.

It’s to really think about how we can get the agency, the decision making power, the funding closer to the communities that our work hopes to serve. 

Kate: Thank you very much. So, Sarah, you’re advocating in USAID for shifting power and decision making to actors in the Global South. Inevitably, this requires USAID to change, particularly USAID headquarters.

And change of this kind, as you’ve already mentioned, is messy, slow, contested, with some people fearing that they’ll lose out. Does this lead to uncomfortable situations and conversations within USAID, particularly with people who would fear that the distribution of financial and decision making power, if it changes, will radically alter the work that you do or will undermine their position within the organisation?

I can imagine lots of situations in which people would have anxiety that they wouldn’t necessarily want to express directly, but it might come out sideways in discussions. 

Sarah: Yeah, this is a really [00:18:00] important question. And again, I think it gets back to that earlier point that change is hard, right?

And it doesn’t come fast. But of course, those of us who work in development embrace that, I think, in many ways, since the whole development process is all about change and we talk a lot about strengthening capacity sharing. Part of what this localisation effort is really about for USAID is thinking about how can we strengthen our own capacity as an organisation to be able to work in different kinds of ways?

But again, I do want to hearken back to that idea that we see a lot of buy-in for the why and for the reason for doing this right. So the conversations are really very much in support of advancing this reform effort. People want to be able to work to really elevate local leadership.

There are some questions around what does this mean? And again, how do we reimagine our respective roles, for instance? A lot of what this comes down to is questions about staffing, skills, etcetera. And so we’re trying to tackle some of these issues head on to try to equip people with the tools and the guidance that they might need.

And so one of the things that we’re doing actively right now is focusing on staff and staff numbers, we recognise that working with partners who are new to USAID, as many local partners are, can be a little bit more time intensive. We recognise that sometimes local organisations,[00:19:00] they’re not set up to receive the scale of funding that USAID is able to push through some of our larger US based implementing partners that have been set up for decades to work directly with USAID and have that kind of relationship. And so what that means is that sometimes that means smaller awards rather than one big award. And again, this gets into a time and resources imperative too, and so recognising that, we need staff to be able to respond to these kinds of needs. And so we’re actively seeking to hire and especially within, and you’ll forgive me for getting a little bit weedy, but within our acquisitions and assistant staff, and these are our staff in particular that are managing these awards and contracts with partners all over the world.

We look at where USAID is relative to other agencies within the federal government. And already what we’re seeing is that our acquisitions and assistance staff are managing more dollars per person than a lot of other agencies in the federal government. And so we already have something that we’re calling a staffing crisis among this set of professionals.

And so another key goal of ours is to really make sure we have the right numbers to bring to bear, so people feel like they can have that time. In coordination with this, we’re thinking about burden reduction, like, how can we reduce some of the administrative burdens that people spend time on so that they have [00:20:00] this time and the space in their day to pursue some more of this meaningful work as well.

And then there’s an issue of just thinking about can we have guidance? Can we have trainings? Can we have templates to be able to clear the path and make it a little bit easier for ways to approach some of these expectations. And there’s a lot of peer learning involved as well.

We’ve developed a community of practice with a thousand USAID staff members in it who really have an opportunity to talk to one another about, hey, how are you doing this? What is an approach that you’ve used for this? How can we help each other? 

Kate: Thank you so much. I was very struck by one of the things you just said there about capacity, because often when capacity building is talked about, it is talked about in terms of capacity being transferred from the Global North or minority world to the Global South or majority world, and what you stated there is that USAID is very aware that you need to strengthen your own capacity, and I find that very refreshing, because something that I’ve been aware of when working in international research teams is how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve gained from the colleagues that I’ve worked with and actually how much good it’s done my career overall to have those opportunities and experiences.

So I find it very, very refreshing for you to acknowledge that USAID in this process of [00:21:00] localisation is going to strengthen your own capacity, you are going to go into a process of learning. And it’s not just a matter of staffing up, it’s also a matter of changing the way that you work, so you can work more effectively with your local partners, so that they can deliver the best work that they can do.

And I think with your history in aid effectiveness, I’m sure you’ve thought deep and hard about what creates the most effective aid, and you’re bringing that to your work here. And I hope that that kind of philosophy of being a learning organisation and learning from your partners in the South can be baked into your process of localisation, because certainly I find it’s enriched me a great deal.

Sort of moving on, so that was a statement rather than a question, but moving on, the conversation that we’ve had so far shows how far USAID has gone in its thinking, but I wonder if you can tell us a bit more about how USAID will be changing its procedures around strategy development at the headquarters level and at the country level, and also how your processes around tendering, contracting, risk assessment, and the design of projects and programs will change.

So that’s some sort of procedural stuff, but also the thinking stuff, the thinking that goes behind what does development look [00:22:00] like and what does development as done by USAID look like, and how do you think that’s all going to change? 

Sarah: This is a great question. It ties so much to your prior comment in many ways, too, because you can talk about principles of aid effectiveness, if you will, but it’s really drilling down in a very sort of organisation specific way, in an agency specific way, to think about what does this look like for USAID, and what do we specifically need to do about our processes and our procedures to be able to make this happen? And this is a very contextual and bespoke kind of conversation that each organisation that’s seeking to advance some of these objectives have, so let me talk a little bit about some of the things that we are doing to re envision these processes.

Starting from the beginning in terms of country strategies, what we’re doing is really asking our missions, and these are our country offices, to place greater emphasis on local priorities throughout all phases of strategy development, from how a diverse range of local stakeholders might be engaged during scoping and parameter setting, to how local priorities are reflected in performance management plans. And so we’re also asking our missions to reflect on sort of the types of operational and management challenges that might be necessary to advance locally led development within their context. So this strategy setting phase really offers an opportunity [00:23:00] both to listen, as well as to reflect as that organisation to think about what is needed to be able to move that forward. But we also, and I mentioned earlier, because we have been working towards these goals for some time, we have a better sense of the kinds of barriers that many partners face, especially those who are new to working with USAID as many local partners are. And so we are being very intentional about trying to dismantle some of those barriers, right, as many as we can. So I’ll just mention a few of these. One of the things that we’re doing is that, as USAID, our primary operational language has been English, right?

And that can be a barrier in and of itself. And so what we’re doing is creating a lot more opportunities for engagement in our acquisitions and assistance processes in languages other than English. We are making sure that we are starting to offer translations of solicitations or notices of funding opportunities, for instance, we’re offering participation and in sort of application procedures or concept note kinds of procedures in languages other than English as well. And so this ties in some ways to one of the other things that we’re doing, which is making better use of these phased application processes where we can start with concept notes or even oral presentations, again, including in languages that are not English, [00:24:00] before requiring an investment in these full applications, which are often very long and resource intensive. Another thing that we’re doing is making more use of milestone based awards that pay for results. These are much less administratively burdensome than those that require a lot of documentation of receipts and payment on the basis of those.

They’re not appropriate in all cases, but a number of our missions have found that they can be very helpful tools for working with local partners, again, who are new to USAID and may not have those sort of accounting systems set up in ways that reflect USAID’s needs for cost reimbursement, right? We are supporting and we’re encouraging others like our INGO partners who might work with local partners as well to really think about how we can better support full and fair cost recovery for local partners, including supporting their indirect costs when it comes to partnering with us.

We’re also issuing a lot of reminders to our staff and really encouraging them to reduce reporting burdens for implementing partners, and this includes things like limiting requests for reporting to required information only, encouraging more streamlined or shorter reports or creating flexibilities in report formats that can we have opportunities for presentations as a report instead of requiring these [00:25:00] long, drawn out beautifully formatted reports that we’ve gotten back from partners in the past. We’re also reducing risk assessment requirements. Just recently we revised our pre award survey guidance to really enable these tools, which are optional, right?

But tools to be more flexible and more tailorable to the partner and to the actual project itself. But on the subject of risk, right? Another thing that we’ve done that’s been really important is to revise USAID’s agency risk appetite statement. And again, this is also posted publicly on our website.

And what this risk appetite statement does is that it articulates that we as an agency have a high appetite for programmatic risk when it comes to working with local partners because of that opportunity side of the ledger, right? Because of the opportunities for more effective and more sustainable results.

There’s a lot more that goes into this, this is a big push across our agency, but those are a couple of the key ways that we’re thinking about revising our strategy process, revising some of our contracting tendering procurement processes as well to really try to reduce barriers and create more space for this work with local organisations.

Kate: That’s great, thank you very much. So it sounds like there’s a comprehensive process at play here where you’re rethinking almost every stage of the [00:26:00] process from the money leaving your headquarters to actually arriving at your local partner organisation and all the kind of administrative and procedural steps that go along the way.

And I heard that you were going to be soliciting views from your partners and that those would feed into your thinking. But I just wonder if you feel that at USAID headquarters, there’s the appetite to, or the ability to really absorb contrasting world views and contrasting understandings of the priorities at country level and how a particular priority might be successfully addressed.

So how much space is there for real genuine change and how much of it is going to be more on the procedural tinkering around the edges kind of thing?

Sarah: Right, so it’s a really good question. And when we’re talking about USAID and where we see some of these opportunities, there’s a lot of priorities and a lot of requirements that are placed on USAID as an organisation. So we hold these localisation goals alongside some other priorities, again, that we have as an agency. And one of those is really around how you think about where our funding comes from. A lot of our funding is directed very much by Congress, right? As well as administration wide priorities. [00:27:00] And what that ends up meaning in practice is that there’s not always a lot of flexibility across sectors, within missions. And so, missions may have certain buckets of money that they are expected to program, maybe for health, for agriculture, water and sanitation.

And there may not be a lot of flexibility again to shift money, in big ways across and among those kinds of buckets, but where there is more flexibility, it can be within those kinds of work within those sectors. And so there is more opportunity for thinking about how can we hear from local stakeholders around priorities within those funding priorities that are often set for USAID and for USAID missions, in a more sort of centralised kind of way and with guidance and direction from our U. S. Congress, right? But within those sectors, there can be a lot more scope for thinking about how to think about what local priorities might look like. 

Kate: Okay, thank you. I’m very interested to hear about the distribution of power and decision making.

We’ve talked about that already, but if we can have a think about how USAID’s approach to localisation will seek to shift power to people in organisations, in and from the [00:28:00] countries that they work with in the Global South and majority world. And whether your localisation agenda genuinely delivers a decolonised and anti racist way of working, or if your agenda is actually something different altogether.

Sarah: Thank you. Yeah, no, that’s a great point. So in terms of distribution of power, let me even start at our agency level too. Right? Because USAID is a fairly decentralised agency. Our missions have quite a bit of leeway in how they manage their work. And this is especially true for localisation because context really matters a lot.

So for some missions, the majority of their partners are going to be local to the country where they work. And some missions, already are in this boat, right? That 80% of their funding is going through local partners. For other missions there may be fewer opportunities for direct partnerships in the near term.

And so missions are really thinking about leading the charge, right? And innovating within their own contexts for how to put these localisation principles into practice. In terms of thinking about what are the plans that make the most sense for them? So Washington sets expectations and principles and offers the tools and the guidance to help clear the path, so to speak, to make it easier to do, but it’s going to look different in different places.

But what I will note too, is that in terms of, what are we really trying to do here? I [00:29:00] want to highlight two things, or maybe three things. So the first is that, DEIA, this commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility is a thread that runs throughout all of USAID’s reform efforts, including localisation.

It’s really the why and the how. And so what this means is that there really is a priority here on thinking about this power shift. And again, just hearkening back to the 2 targets that we have. We have 1 target that’s about funding, but the other target is very much focused on how we work.

And how we are taking actions, how we are creating space in the kind of work that we do, that really offers space and opportunity to practice mutuality, right? To have these opportunities for local actors, be they local partners, be they subpartners, be they members of a community that are affected by USAID programming. How can those voices feed into the work that we are doing and how can we create that kind of space? One of the things that we hear about a lot too in conversations around localisation, in conversations around capacity strengthening, especially, is this issue of relationships and this issue of trust, right?

And how to get to those places. And so, again, those are the goals that we seek to get to. But again, what we have to do to get there in part is to think [00:30:00] about how we can create that space for that time, right? That investment of time, how we can create that open door, right, to be able to have these repeated kinds of conversations with local actors, with local partners, to be able to create that sort of trust based relationship to be able to enable this true partnership that we’ve talked a little bit about during this podcast as well.

But the other thing I really want to underscore is there is a link between the localisation efforts that USAID is pursuing and the inclusive development lens that is also really important, that USAID is tackling in parallel to these localisation efforts.

Because what this means, what inclusive development really seeks to get at is the idea that there is a role for everybody in all of their diversity in the communities in which we work to lead their development journeys, right? And so we’re thinking about how do we make sure that voices from across the spectrum, including communities that have been historically marginalised, for instance, thinking about maybe women, youth, LGBTQI+, religious communities, ethnic minorities, et cetera.

Now, how are these brought into the development process and how can USAID take that lens and what it’s doing? And so [00:31:00] localisation without that lens of inclusive development can really risk exacerbating some inequalities that may exist in places where we work.

But at the same time, localisation actually gives us some tools and some approaches to really think about how we can integrate that inclusive development lens into some of the work that we’re doing. 

Kate: Thank you. I’d like to push you a little bit harder though, because one of the questions I asked there was about an anti racist way of working, and I think it’s potentially possible to implement a localisation approach without actually tackling issues of race and racism and coloniality, and the sort of hierarchies of power based on colour and race, and I think as two White women it’s quite easy for us to ignore and forget those issues because they don’t actually impact on us in our day to day lives, but potentially for people of colour within USAID and potentially for your partner organisations in the majority world, they will experience these hierarchies of power, which may be intersecting [00:32:00] with gender, disability, race, religion. I don’t know, but I’m sure that race is in the picture quite often. And the assumptions and prejudices that White people hold, particularly when they’re from the minority world, or Global North, as it pertains to people from the minority world in terms of anything from work ethic to ways of thinking to education to professionalism.

There’s a whole load of assumptions which can be incorrect and that actually need to be unpicked and I suppose I just want to challenge you to find out how USAID is going to incorporate this within the localisation agenda or if it’s not. 

Sarah: So I think that that’s a really powerful question.

And I think it ties to some of these issues that we’re really seeking to grapple with, again, through these parallel efforts to think about how can we improve and enhance diversity, equity and inclusion and accessibility throughout the agency, right? And that includes, I think, as you mentioned, inclusion and equity for everyone in the workplace, in terms of thinking about how do we strengthen accountability for promoting and sustaining a diverse workforce and an inclusive agency culture.

And then how is this reflected in the work that [00:33:00] we do as well? I think it was almost two years ago now, USAID had hired its first ever Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Officer. We now have a new office that is dedicated to advancing this strategy of DEIA throughout our work.

And we do work closely with them in terms of what that means for how do we think about the integration of DEIA with localisation work? And what are the right lenses that we need to be taking to that? But it also really very much applies to what does this look like in our workplace as well?

We have goals of trying to think about how we can enhance diversity throughout our own agency, right? And this is a fundamental starting point too, thinking about how can we implement the policies and programs and practices that can help improve and increase diversity.

And then how can we be more inclusive and ensure that we are being more equitable again, looking at our own workplace too. And this is a start. And one of the key efforts here, I think that relates very much to localisation is an effort that USAID is undertaking to really think about how we can make sure that we are empowering our locally employed staff, or we call them our foreign service nationals, and these are our colleagues who work in missions who are from those countries where those [00:34:00] missions are located. And there has been a real identified need to make sure that the skills, the expertise of those staff are recognised, are valued and are done so in ways that are reflected in their opportunities for contributions, for professional development, et cetera.

And it’s actually important fundamentally and across the board, just to make sure that again, we’re being equitable and how we think about our own workforce, but it’s relevant for localisation as well. Because when we think about our locally employed staff, they have the continuity admissions often, our U. S. based staff rotate on a periodic basis. But a lot of our foreign service national staff are in these positions for 10, 20 years, they have the continuity to be able to help develop those sort of longer term kinds of relationships that are really important with local actors, if you will, that are really important for advancing localisation goals. They are often from the community that we seek to work with, they have language skills as well. And they have the professional skills, right, that are utterly relevant and important and critical for advancing some of these localisation efforts. And so thinking about how we advance these DEIA principles, even within our own staff, is a starting point for thinking about [00:35:00] how we can ensure that some of these principles are also ingrained in the work that we do as we seek to advance localisation.

Kate: Thank you, Sarah. It’s been really interesting talking to you about how USAID is taking forward the localisation agenda. I wonder if you could share with our listeners and viewers a practical takeaway so that they can contribute to this work positively through their own lives. I wonder if you could identify a practical step that they could take to support anti racism, decolonisation and localisation, whether they work in the development sector or are simply members of the engaged general public.

Sarah: That’s a good question. I think what I would say is the following. So I think, first it’s important to recognise complexity, to recognise local systems, to recognise your position within a local system, and to recognise power dynamics. It’s important to name those power dynamics. It’s important to be specific about the intention to shift those power dynamics.

And then it’s important to make those changes. And then critically, we have to create real space for listening, for feedback and for accountability to [00:36:00] continually try to improve. We actually just recently heard from a member of a Ugandan based NGO: “we all have a voice, but not all of us have a microphone.”

So we need to create that space for listening, right? We won’t get it right all the time. We probably won’t get it right the first time. But it’s okay. It’s okay to not be an expert. It’s okay to keep learning. And we just have to keep trying.

Kate: That’s great. Thank you, Sarah. I like the emphasis on listening. Too often we forget that that’s a crucial part of the conversation. So thank you, Sarah Rose from USAID for talking to us about localisation. 

Sarah: Thanks for having me, Kate.

This weeks guest:

Sarah Rose is the Senior Advisor for Localisation in the Office of the USAID Administrator.

Prior to coming to USAID, she was a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, where her research focused on US development policy and aid effectiveness, including localization. Previously, Sarah was a monitoring and evaluation specialist in the health office of the USAID Mission in Mozambique. She also worked at the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Department of Policy and Evaluation.

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