Ask a Boss: Decolonizing Project Design
We're pleased to welcome a new voice to Ask A Boss. Gretchen King is our in-house expert on USAID policy and localization strategies!
Dear Bid Boss,
I am a more junior staff person on the business development team at a larger INGO. I'm often involved in project design meetings and I've noticed a running issue where our more senior staff and decision makers don't put our local partners' inputs front and center in the design. We tend to base our decisions off of the inputs of headquarters technical experts, who at times haven't even spent significant time in the geographic location where we're planning the project. Even when LPs are invited to the table they're not given a lot of space to speak, or their ideas don't seem to be taken as seriously even though they have a much greater understanding of the current context.
Since I am not in the role of leading design facilitation or partnership negotiations, any suggestions for how I can more indirectly address this problem when I see it?
--Accessory to a Project Hijacking
Dear Local Partner Champion,
Take heart, you are not alone in this issue! In fact, the dynamics you experience can be viewed as a microcosm for the larger challenges that shape the localization and the de-colonization debate throughout foreign aid and development programming. While I won’t get into the weeds on those debates, there are a few things you can do that may help shift approaches to project design at your INGO--especially when speaking up as a junior staff person can be a little intimidating (believe me, I’ve been there!).
Encourage the Use of Donor Policies and Approaches to Engage Local Partners
What you have on your side is that donors WANT local actors, including your local partners, to shape and lead programming. In fact, USAID has written entire policies and implementation guidance related to the topic. Make your case with the design team by citing those donor policies. At the end of the day your INGO wants to submit a proposal that aligns with the donors’ goals to increase the chances of a win. Demonstrating that your proposed project has incorporated serious input and technical expertise from your local partners will only be a plus for the strength of your proposal.
Talk to your supervisor ahead of time to get their buy-in for developing a plan that incorporates input from local partners at the start. As a part of that discussion propose limited initial engagement with HQ-based technical staff, advocate for scheduling design meetings at times that work well for local partners and ensure that their input is a significant part of the meeting agendas.
These suggestions will not change a systemic problem overnight but keep at it. Changing an existing system always takes time.
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