Opinion: Key personnel, localization, leadership

In the News, Opinion Pieces

Administrator Power speaks often and convincingly of the need for locally-led development. At the Professional Services Council in December 2021, Administrator Power said, “We know after decades of effort and evaluation, that locally led development supports local institutions in the most effective manner and nurtures sustainability, prioritizes the perspectives and preferences of those we hope to serve — recipient governments, civil society organizations, and host country professionals.”  

As an American who has spent the last 25 years living and working in Africa, I know that local engagement and leadership is essential for success, and I fully support USAID’s drive towards increased localization. I have seen firsthand the power of unlocking local knowledge, trusted leadership, and cultural nuance to create impact. I am passionate about how we take the notion of localization and make it tangible so that our programs benefit from the powerful combination of US government support and local wisdom to realize USAID’s mission to ‘advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world’. 

Administrator Power has committed to delivering 25% of all USAID support through local partners within four years and ensuring that 50% of all USAID programming places local communities in the lead for design and co-creation within eight years. I’m sure missions around the world are already determining how to deliver on these ambitious targets. It is likely that a great deal of time and energy will go into aligning new processes to the existing USG rules and regulations and in determining where the rules and regs may need to be changed to ensure USAID delivers on these localization goals. This will take time. 

In the meantime, I wanted to share a recommendation for an immediate action that can be taken across every mission, one that requires no changes to the existing rules and regs, and would have a dramatic impact on the localization drive. 

Leadership is foundational for successful development programs and this begins with key personnel on USAID projects. Since key personnel are defined within USAID’s solicitations, local missions have significant scope for defining these criteria. It’s important for USAID missions to seize this opportunity for defining key personnel criteria that expands the local talent pool as widely as possible. The reason that this is so important is that once solicitations are released, USAID has almost no ability to discuss key personnel -i.e. leadership positions – with potential implementers until after a project is awarded. 

It’s true that once a project is awarded, key personnel criteria can be negotiated with local missions. At that point, USAID staff can use their judgement as they work with implementing partners to identify the best person to lead a project. I’ve gone through this process myself. And inevitably, USAID program staff and Agreement/Contracting Officers are extremely thoughtful in determining how to bring on the best leadership for a project. 

Unfortunately, this negotiation is only possible just before or after a project has been awarded. And to be awarded a project, an implementing partner must put forward key personnel -leadership -that align with the key personnel requirements to get the required points when bids are scored. 

During PEPFAR’s impressive shift to localization, when USAID began focusing on bringing in local organizations to lead the responses to HIV and TB, key personnel criteria remained largely the same as when international organizations were submitting proposals. If you were to look today at the key personnel criteria to lead a health project in South Africa, Uganda, Ghana, or DRC, you would find that the requirements for a Chief of Party are basically the same across all countries. And these requirements are more or less the same as when international organizations were recruiting from across the world.  

Using the same key personnel requirements across the world means that USAID risks excluding local experts for key personnel roles. We should not simply approach key personnel requirements by relying on what was done before; we should instead make sure we expand the pool to get the best talent. 

As just one example, in the health sector, you’ll often find that an MPH or MD is required. But every patient in every facility across Africa is first seen by a nurse when visiting a facility. Nursing experience is often neglected in key personnel requirements for leadership roles. 

I would argue that many of the people designing projects and key personnel requirements are themselves MDs or MPHs and so these seem like appropriate qualifications. And, of course, these are. But the argument can be made that these are not the only qualifications or experience required to successfully deliver effective health projects. While in the US – an MPH or a PHD is essential and highly prized, within other contexts we know that other qualifications provide great value and that on the ground experience can be just as important.  

I make this recommendation as someone who has had similar qualification biases in the past. As the holder of an MPH, I’ve found myself prioritizing this qualification over others. And I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues who’ve helped me identify and correct for these biases and ensure that I remember that the local context of where we work means that what makes an effective leader varies. 

When changes in hiring have been advocated in other sectors, the response has been to put a value judgement on the requested changes, arguing that this amounts to lowering the quality of applicants. On the contrary, I am advocating for a wider understanding of value that different candidates bring. I propose expanding the standard criteria for these vital roles to reflect the local talent pool to attract diverse leaders to drive our programs forward.  

Broadening the criteria for key personnel might make the job of evaluating candidates and implementing partner’s proposals more challenging as the reference points expand, however based on experience with USAID staff around the world, I am confident that USAID is up to the task. And that it will be well worth the effort. Strong, trusted leadership is the key to effective programming.  

I agree with Administrator Power that we must think bigger and do things differently. In this case, thinking bigger means thinking local. With no rule or regulation changes needed, USAID can immediately make a simple change to identify diverse talent and expertise and deliver on the promise of a free, peaceful, and prosperous world. 

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