Putting USAID’s Principles for Capacity Strengthening to Work
Locally led development focuses on empowering communities to lead their own initiatives. This approach recognizes that local communities have a unique understanding of their own needs, resources and priorities, and therefore should play a central role in shaping and implementing development initiatives. The Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research, Capacity, and Influence (PRCI) strengthens local institutional research capacity for influencing food and agricultural policy at the local, national and international levels.
PRCI has localization built into the lab’s founding mission. The Lab is rooted in Michigan State University (MSU) traditions of training and supporting researchers from the global south, going back more than 50 years to the 1970s. From this wellspring of experience — working to localize agricultural policy research efforts — much institutional knowledge has been distilled about how to operationalize the seven principles that USAID has outlined to put its local capacity strengthening policy into practice.
In conceptualizing PRCI, MSU and its partners put much effort into defining how, structurally and procedurally, local ownership would be mainstreamed in what the lab did. The result is shown in Figure 1, which shows competitive selection of centers and STAAARS+ fellows, driven by their own vision of institutional development, multiple avenues for capacity strengthening and yearly two-way feedback resulting in agreed Lab-wide work plans.
Three Principles for Effective Programming
The PRCI approach recognizes that local context and knowledge are essential for effective policymaking, and that building upon existing relationships and networks can lead to more sustainable and impactful outcomes. Considering this, we operationalize the three principles for effective programming in the following ways:
Principle 1: Start with the local system. To put this principle into action, PRCI partners with local networks and centers, such as the African Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes (ANAPRI) and the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) in Ghana. The project collaborates intensively with three competitively selected Centers for Policy Leadership in Africa, and in Asia, Kasetsart University in Thailand and Research and Information System (RIS) in India were identified as key centers for building up local policy networks. PRCI does not hire local employees to carry out its work on the ground but rather works with the staff of these partners.
Principle 2: Strengthen diverse capacities through diverse approaches. PRCI’s multifaceted approach is rooted in strengthening the capacity of both researchers and their institutions starting from the framework that each researcher already has their own skills, capacities, and interests. Through research mentoring, technical training, competitive STAAARS+ fellowships, research-to-policy training, and a cross-cutting focus on gender and climate change PRCI provides a framework for bridging skill gaps and assisting researchers to publish empirical, transformative research.
On an institutional level, the Policy Influence Capacity Advancement (PICA) Process and Leadership Practices Inventory focuses on high-level processes and planning. Through institutional support from PRCI, ANAPRI has grown from ReNAPRI, a regional network, expanding as ANAPRI, and a pan-African influence. ANAPRI has added four more centers to its network, for a total of 15 local policy institutes, allowing them to mobilize a coordinated effort to address wide-scale issues including climate change and effects of the Ukraine conflict.
Principle 3: Plan for and measure performance improvement in collaboration with local partners. When putting local partners and participants first, the focus must be on local institutional successes. To measure performance, PRCI collects data on milestones marking progress in policy processes and policy architecture, and tracks demand by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders for engagements including data, reports, forums, consultations and presentations. Through the assistance of PRCI, the Bureau de d'Analyses Macro Economiques l’Institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles (ISRA-BAME) revived its monthly publication, Mardi du Bame. In Nigeria, the Innovation Lab for Policy Leadership in Agriculture and Food Security (PiLAF), was created due to the opportunity provided by PRCI and has been very active in stakeholder outreach on the poultry value chain, with manufacturers of agricultural implements, and in a number of other areas as demands have been expressed from local stakeholders.
Four Principles for Equitable Partnerships
Equitable partnerships are crucial to empower local communities and ensure sustainability of interventions and projects. In the long process of decolonialization, it is vital to address power imbalances between donors, international organizations, and local communities, not only to redress power dynamics but also to improve the effectiveness of development initiatives and investments. PRCI approaches these principles in the following ways:
Principle 4: Align capacity strengthening with local priorities. PRCI processes are rooted in a focus on local capacity. The goals of our local partners — and their own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses for achieving those goals — are the basis for the capacity strengthening plan through which PRCI faculty act as collaborators, mentors and consultants. This is paired with Principle 5: Anticipate and build on existing capacities, which is why the development community now uses terminology such as capacity strengthening rather than capacity building. We invest in our partners’ visions through flexible grants and work with them to develop strategies to pursue their vision. Through its STAAARS+ Fellows program and the Core Center Research Program, PRCI puts our partners in charge of defining the most relevant research topics, works with them to refine questions and applies the best techniques to address them.
While localization is fundamental to the future of international development it is not without pitfalls; Principle 6: Be mindful of and mitigate the unintended consequences of our support for local capacity strengthening addresses this aspect of the process. For instance, demand for services can spur growth too quickly and lead to failure. PRCI works with ANAPRI and its Centers for Policy Leadership to plan strategically for this growth and to use their grants to put personnel and procedures in place to keep up with it. For example, using the foundation of PRCI support, ISRA-BAME in Senegal gained agreement from the Director General of ISRA to create and fund several new positions in BAME to enhance its capacity to respond to growing demand.
Principle 7: Practice mutuality with partners. This is the crux of the localization process. PRCI designed annual meetings to feature two-way feedback on performance between the original PRCI consortium partners and the selected local centers. The COVID-19 pandemic made this difficult by eliminating travel for nearly three of the five years of the program. To adapt to this, PRCI has used periodic surveys of its members to assess adequacy of individual components of the program (e.g., the online technical training program) and on PRCI’s overall approach and focus. A “listening tour” by PRCI leadership late in Year 3 and a Global Convening taking place at the end of April, featuring self-reflection on each of the parties, has “lived-up” to the aspirations in PRCI’s original design and provided additional avenues for mutual accountability.
Achieving the aspirations laid out in the USAID local capacity strengthening strategy requires deeply rethinking the ways in which development has been approached to date. PRCI is committed to distilling lessons from its experience to share with the global community, including a frank assessment of strengths and weaknesses — which become opportunities for future improvement — in how its program was implemented.