Building USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance Policies and Approaches into your Proposal
The Journey to Self-Reliance (J2SR), the signature initiative of USAID during the Trump Administration, may often be viewed by organizations, and those writing USAID proposals for organizations, as high-level policy that’s challenging to truly implement in the field. How can your proposal really “place local systems at the heart of achieving sustainable, resilient results”? Or how can you practically “strengthen commitment and capacity at all levels of society” within your proposal?
Working to build self-reliance and overcoming large development challenges in countries around the world has always been a daunting task and one that will require the help of many actors (host governments, civil society, donors, INGOs, and the private sector). Remember, your proposal is one of dozens of projects the Mission is doing to achieve their national-level objectives, which are detailed throughout the CDCS development objectives. The CDCS intends to also layout how USAID supports activities meant to complement the hundreds of other activities happening through other actors, so try your best to identify a small piece of the larger self-reliance puzzle that your organization can help a country work to achieve.
USAID has put forward a number of approaches or guidance that can aid with building J2SR into a proposal. They include the Self-Reliance Learning Agenda (SRLA), guidance on Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA), Co-Creation tips, and each Mission’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) to name a few. While these approaches and guidance are helpful, there can still be a missing link on how best to practically include efforts that will support a country toward self-reliance. Below are a few tips for better incorporating J2RS policy implementation and USAID approaches into your proposal that could make your organization stand out.
Ensure your proposal aligns with the Mission’s CDCS and with any host government strategies.
While this will likely seem obvious, be sure that your proposal articulates a strong understanding of country context and your understanding of why this proposed project will aid in realizing the CDCS’s goal, which likely aims to create greater self-reliance. Explain how your proposal will be a step along the continuum to achieve relevant development objectives AND host government goals. If USAID is really striving toward self-reliance, being clear about how your proposal also aligns with country-led plans and will play a supporting role in those efforts is important. For example, Zambia’s CDCS specifically references the country’s 7th National Development Plan and states that USAID will closely partner with the government to achieve its plan objectives. Therefore, any proposal should be sure to say how it will also help achieve SPECIFIC aspects of Zambia’s plan.
Identify what “sustainability of the activity or results” actually means and then work backward.
Designing your proposal through the lens of “what needs to last” can help weed out lofty, expensive ideas that have no hope of continuing on a district government budget. Ask yourself “Can the Government of X really afford this fancy software for tracking healthcare service delivery after our project ends”? Furthermore, is that the best use of a limited budget after USAID money is gone? As I’ve heard many colleagues say before, don’t go for the Cadillac. This working backward approach can also help prevent the common practice of proposing the creation of endless new working groups, advisory boards, and committees with catchy titles that are project-specific. While some of these “groups” may be needed, always ask yourself if there are existing boards and committees within the country or community that the project can work through or provide project updates to—aka working through local systems. If something needs to last doesn’t it make more sense to tap into efforts already there, have buy-in, and will likely last after the end of the project? The answer is often yes.
If the project requires an inception phase don’t waste a single moment of it and focus significant time on the inception phase plan for the proposal.
Increasingly, USAID is asking for proposals that incorporate six months or even year-long inception phase plans. This initial phase will enable your organization to build or strengthen relationships with local stakeholders, conduct an applied Political Economy Analysis, spend significant time on co-creation activities, and co-develop M&E plans that can also provide useful data for local actors on their Journey to Self-Reliance. This is your organization’s moment to really ask people what is needed, what will work, and what won't, so use the time wisely. Your “activities” for this phase should be working with local actors to determine what project activities will be effective, lay the groundwork for partnerships, and foster open and transparent dialogue that can last the life of the project and beyond.
Think of your organization and staff as a facilitator and not an implementor.
This can be tricky. You could argue, “Well, we are being PAID to run this project. Aren’t WE supposed to implement it?” Yes, to a certain degree, but to really build in J2SR themes and USAID recommended approaches you should view your organization as a facilitator, connector, or interlocutor. Your organization and staff will only be doing this for a few years, so what relationships between citizens, their government, and the private sector need to form or be strengthened to achieve sustained results? How can your organization get the right people in the room (not just other international actors that might be doing similar projects) to provide a space for local actors to strengthen those relationships and work toward sustainable solutions that will be owned by their community/country? I know many organizations have local partners they have worked with for decades and regularly call upon to join proposals. While your organization may give those local NGOs/CSOs implementation leadership roles already, I would encourage you to think about how your organization can proactively NOT LEAD whenever possible throughout proposal design, an inception phase, and, ultimately, project implementation. Ask those local partners and other stakeholders what they think, want to do, or see as needs as often as you can, which leads to the next tip…..
CLA is not something that just happens annually or quarterly.
Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) should be happening every day from project design to the final evaluation, so make sure it’s built into every aspect of your proposal. If your organization has embraced all the tips listed above this should be relatively easy. If you have designed a proposal that will help facilitate the development of or strengthen relationships between local actors to lead in the co-creation and continuous implementation of project activities with a high probability of sustained results because of buy-in and alignment with local goals, then it’s pretty hard to avoid Collaborating, Learning and Adapting. In that scenario, local actors and experts will have regular opportunities to tell you what’s working, what isn’t, what further information needs to be gathered and tracked to make informed recommendations, and how the project should quickly adapt to achieve the objectives. Additionally, information your organization gathers through CLA can help USAID develop better approaches and understand country dynamics for future work. Finally, while your organization likely has dozens of technical experts with graduate degrees and decades of experience, embracing continuous CLA enables local actors with similar technical expertise an opportunity to provide advice and also share something vital for achieving self-reliance—their local political, economic and social technical expertise. Through this continuous CLA approach, your organization can position itself to do something that is often challenging for many organizations to do well--- listen.
In closing, integrating J2SR policies and approaches into your proposal doesn't have to be a challenge if your organization focuses on practical ways, like the tips listed above, to foster greater commitment and capacity. By working to support local actors' existing efforts and by strengthening existing systems throughout your proposal your organization will be identifying that small piece of the larger self-reliance puzzle that can help countries solve their own development challenges.