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Ask an Expert: Q&A with Arjun Tasker on What's New with USAID's New Partnerships Initiative

Localization & Inclusive Development
People in Tanzania sharing ideas by writing on a piece of paper on the wall
Jun 8, 2022
Arjun Tasker

Arjun Tasker is the New Partnerships Initiative (NPI) Portfolio Manager in USAID's Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub.

As part of our Localization & Inclusive Development blog series, we spoke with Arjun about how NPI supports collaboration with new and nontraditional partners and where NPI is going in the future.

Q: The New Partnerships Initiative, or NPI, has been around for approximately three years. How has it evolved over that time?

A: The original New Partnerships Initiative was first launched in 1995 at the direction of then-Vice President Al Gore…but from its re-launch in 2019, NPI has remained focused on diversifying the Agency’s partnerships and improving how we, as an Agency, partner. However, the approaches and practices that we promote have shifted in response to the changing development landscape, Administrator priorities, lessons learned, new collaboration with different operating units, and feedback from our partners based on their needs and interests.

For example, NPI has focused more attention on issues of inclusion and accountability over the past year. This has expressed itself in cooperation with the Agency Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Coordinator—a role that has been elevated to Chief DEIA Officer with its own dedicated staff—to better promote the role of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in USAID’s programming and opportunities for improvement. We have also become advocates for improving feedback and accountability mechanisms to local communities and marginalized groups in USAID programming–particularly through the NPI awards we help design.

Q: What have been some highlights of the initiative?

A: It seems only fitting to highlight that last year, in collaboration with our colleagues in the Management Bureau’s Office of Acquisition and Assistance, and the Partnerships Incubator, NPI unveiled an innovative new platform for sharing information, resources, and networks on partnering with USAID—WorkwithUSAID.org. Indeed, we are using the platform right now!

In October 2021, Administrator Power approved a second round of NPI action planning based on revised guidance. These NPI Action Plans provide an Agency-wide picture of how operating units (the organizational units that make up the Agency) are thinking about partnerships with new, nontraditional, and local organizations, as well as how they are considering inclusive development in their partnerships. 

Lastly, I’d say that NPI has been closely involved from the start with the Agency’s localization agenda, championed by Administrator Power. Many of the goals of the agenda reinforce what NPI has been trying to do since our inception, in terms of expanding partnerships with nontraditional and local actors, elevating local decision-making across the development process, and strengthening local capacity.

Q: What excites you most about NPI?

A: We are very excited to be positioned to work with and across the Agency, to be internal advocates for improving how we partner, as well as helping create a welcoming “front door” for organizations and individuals seeking to better understand and partner with the Agency. 

I’m also really encouraged by some of the initial results from NPI projects that we have been able to support in conjunction with USAID Missions over the past three years. We have numerous NPI activities that are currently being implemented, and it’s really gratifying to see how they have progressed and what kinds of learning will come out of the various applications of NPI approaches that Missions have been piloting in their awards.

One specific project that comes to mind is the NPI: Expanding Health Partnerships in Brazil as it demonstrates how the use of subawards can lead to strengthened capacity as evidenced by the recovery of Amazonian communities’ health systems and economic opportunities, and that the use of a local organization can lead to innovative implementation and sustainable results. 

Through subawards to local organizations operating in the Amazon, the project focused on local health system capacity strengthening and economic recovery for communities impacted by a second wave of COVID-19 in the region.

A local organization mobilized $3.5 million from local and international private sector partners, for a total of $5.9 million in co-investment, and also distributed food baskets and hygiene kits in rural regions of the Amazon, trained health workers, and offered financial and business advisory services to entrepreneurs to handle the economic shocks caused by COVID-19. This project demonstrates the importance of leveraging the private sector and using a flexible approach, while building an ecosystem of local, capable actors.

This project is one of 34 Mission awards that have been supported by NPI over the past three years, collectively totaling approximately $400 million in funding spread over 60 partners and 30 countries.

Q: What can NPI teach the rest of the Agency about partnership with new and nontraditional partners?

A: One thing that we on the NPI team try to continually remind our colleagues is that there is not a one-size-fits-all model, that instead there are so many different approaches and tools for improving how we work with nontraditional and local partners. And furthermore, we can do so much with the flexibilities and mechanisms that are already available and in use in different parts of the Agency. So a lot of what we try to do is meet with or correspond with Mission staff and really understand their programmatic aims and partnership priorities. And then we share ideas on the potential approaches and mechanisms to build into their award-making processes in order to work best with local or nontraditional actors who are operating in their region. 

A lot of this comes down to asking good questions—what kinds of burdens might you be placing on your partners through your solicitations and awards? What expectations are you setting? When and how are you planning to co-create? At what stages and in what ways are local perspectives being incorporated into or guiding your plans? And then it’s a process of proposing flexible and manageable solutions and helping Missions implement them.

NPI has also tried to further advance and harmonize conversations around inclusive development and localization, as articulated in the Administrator’s November 2021 speech at Georgetown. That speech set targets for expanding local awards as well as the role of local actors in programmatic decision-making. The inclusive development agenda drills down to another level of effort beyond working with local actors, which is more about how we work in ways that are inclusive of underserved communities and marginalized groups. The localization and inclusive development agendas—which helped kick off this blog series—bring together the kinds of programmatic and procurement questions that NPI was designed to help resolve in ways that benefit nontraditional partners.

Q: How does NPI relate to the Agency’s localization agenda?

A: The New Partnerships Initiative team has been highly involved in the Agency’s localization effort, bringing our expertise to bear in development of the localization agenda. At the same time, NPI’s focus is broader than the localization agenda’s. NPI includes all types of nontraditional partners while localization focuses primarily on partners indigenous to the country in which they work. 

Just as NPI has sought to encourage the Agency to think about approaches to partnerships holistically, it is essential that localization is not pigeon-holed as one project among many, but rather that it permeates how USAID thinks about development and humanitarian assistance writ large.

The localization agenda is also far broader than expanding our partner base to include more direct funding to local organizations, as important as that is. Localization is about devolving power, leadership, decision making, agenda setting, and accountability to the local level across the full program cycle, so that our programming is inclusive and locally sustained.

NPI offers approaches and tools for working with new and local actors in an equitable manner. We have been closely involved in putting together the Agency’s Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, which will be finalized for public release and implementation later this year. We are working on a localization playbook to help Missions and Operating Units across the Agency have the tools they need to carry out the Administrator’s localization vision in their contexts. 

Q: How is NPI contributing to the Administrator’s target to increase funding to local actors to 25 percent over the next four years, and to build local voice into 50 percent of all programs over the next decade?

A: The Administrator’s vision for increased local funding and increased local decision-making is very exciting to the NPI team as the two goals that it advances are among the key reasons NPI was first established. NPI has built on our existing support to local partners and continues to actively contribute to Agency localization goals through the tools and approaches that we help craft. We will continue to work with Missions and Operating Units to design awards that, among other objectives, expand and strengthen local partnerships.

Beyond targeting awards to local partners, NPI will also continue to advocate for the broader uptake of NPI standard practices, all of which contribute in different ways to enhancing the voices and decision-making of local communities. These standard practices include co-creation, refinement periods, accountability and feedback planning, and capacity strengthening, all of which share an emphasis on more balanced partnerships, characterized by inclusion of diverse local voices and learning from those local actors most directly involved with or affected by our development programming.

Q: Can you talk about NPI in a wider diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) lens? How does NPI support the Agency’s priorities in this area, and where are we seeing positive change happening?

A: In 2021, NPI began to closely collaborate with the Agency’s Interim DEIA Coordinator on several lines of effort in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 13985 on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. One of the major areas of collaboration was incorporating questions on DEIA-related partnerships and programming in the 2021 NPI Action Plans, for which the Administrator sent out guidance to all Missions and Operating Units last year.

Positive highlights from the latest NPI Actions Plans include: 

  • Reaffirmation that many Missions have thought about issues of localization and inclusions for years
  • Missions and operating units (M/OUs) are working more with local partners
  • M/OUs are working with more marginalized populations
  • M/OUs are capturing more local voices and closing accountability and feedback loops
  • M/OUs are utilizing inclusive development analyses (Gender, Youth, Inclusive development) to inform program design.

Q: Where is NPI headed? What is the future direction of NPI?

A: One of the most exciting developments of my time with NPI has been our transition as a very small team that was based out of the Administrator’s office to a larger team in the Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub of the Development, Democracy, and Innovation Bureau. This institutionalization has meant that we can sustain our reform agenda’s momentum while also tapping into the considerable technical expertise of our Hub and Bureau. NPI complements and reinforces other new partnership initiatives like the Agency's Local Works program, as well as enterprise-wide efforts to work with more U.S. small businesses, faith-based organizations, minority-serving institutions, local partners, and others.

Going forward, I anticipate that NPI will continue to act as a clearinghouse for the Agency—exchanging best practices, sharing lessons learned, connecting other teams together, and trying to be the first place that our Agency colleagues go to learn how to work with nontraditional and local partners. At the same time, we will leverage platforms like WorkwithUSAID.org to welcome and connect those who are new to pursuing partnerships with the Agency. 

Find out more about NPI here. 

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