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How USAID Is Making Localization Work in Serbia

Serbian man crouching down in a field with his hat in his hand.
Photo credit: USAID Serbia Flickr
Jun 3, 2022

“Partnership is not a posture but a process—a continuous process that grows stronger each year as we devote ourselves to common tasks.” — John F. Kennedy

USAID believes that sustainable development begins with local leadership and strong partnerships. Spurred by this belief, the Agency developed its flagship Local Works (LW) program, which provides Missions with more freedom and support to pursue innovative local solutions to advance development around the world. 

USAID’s Mission in Serbia was one of the first to join LW, and in 2016, they made six awards to local partners in the democracy, human rights, and governance sector, helping them advance their efforts to engage citizens in advocacy work, increase transparency in the judicial system, affect policy change through public-private dialogue, boost local philanthropy, and much more. 

Through an evaluation conducted by the Agency to understand the factors that made these activities so responsive to citizen priorities and effective in achieving intended results, both local partners and technical staff reported a common trend—the support and flexibility from the Office of Acquisition and Assistance (OAA) made this a successful partnership. 

To learn more, the Agency spoke with staff from OAA who directly supported LW in Serbia: two Agreement Officers, Michael Capobianco and Carter Saunders, and Acquisition and Assistance Specialist, Branislav Bulatovic. We pulled out some key lessons learned and takeaways from that conversation.

Lesson #1: Develop Strong Communication in the Pre-Solicitation Phase

One of the unique factors of LW is that the program emphasizes engaging with local and nontraditional partners who bring new ideas and understanding of the local context. Working hand-in-hand with partners in the pre-solicitation phase–before the grant or contract solicitation has been released–takes the guesswork out of working with USAID, ensuring everyone has a clear understanding of what they are getting into.

During the pre-solicitation phase, OAA staff identified pre-application conferences as a major opportunity to start partnerships with effective communication. Capobianco recalled his routine visits to Belgrade from four hours away in Kosovo to support these conferences. He recognized these conferences created an inviting space to have more casual conversations with potential partners and it helped the Agency lay out expectations. Bulatovic also identified these conferences as an opportunity for organizations with various partnership experience to discuss the requirements for responsibility determination with Agency staff, helping them get clearer direction about their unique status and next steps they needed to take.

In addition to conferences, co-creation enables the Agency to be an active listener and to understand partners’ needs and concerns while implementing the priorities and solutions of the Agency. Saunders also pointed out that the objectives included in the request for applications (RFA) were left intentionally broad, opening the door to a lot of interest and communication with potential partners and helping the Agency identify the various organizations that are currently implementing local activities that could contribute to meeting USAID’s overall programmatic goals. 

"A lot of it comes down to the OAA. Having a contracting officer that is interested and engaged, and has the skills and experience to manage different types of activities and engage makes all the difference in the world.” - USAID/Serbia Technical Staff Member 

Lesson #2: Embed Flexibility for a Successful Partnership

The LW program aims to empower the agreement officer’s representative (AOR) and partners to adapt to what works for them. Too much control and holding on too tightly can stifle the growth and innovativeness of local partners. LW awards are granted for a five-year period, giving partners time to focus on long-term solutions centered on local priorities. While USAID supports local partners in developing plans, making space for flexibility is vital to partners’ success because anything can change in five years. The Agreement Officers asked the technical team to express what they wanted to achieve in two pages and to create program descriptions with partners that did not exceed 10 pages. This laid the foundation for a clear objective while retaining flexibility to update specifics over time through work planning.

Lesson #3: Finding the Right Funding Mechanism 

A variety of combinations exist for funding mechanisms. USAID staff can promote strong partnerships by taking into account both the program's needs and the capacity of the partners when determining the funding mechanism for an activity. But again, communication is key in overcoming barriers. Using USAID/Serbia’s example, OAA took the route of cooperative agreements, which require the Non-U.S. Partner Pre-Award Survey (NUPAS). Though an added procedural layer for new partners, NUPAS is necessary to ensure organizations are set up for success because it offers a clear picture of an organization’s readiness to receive and manage USAID funds. 

On the other hand, for partners that have not developed their organizations’ structures in a way that can accommodate complex award management, fixed amount awards may be the more appropriate choice given the lower management burden. It is OAA’s desire to ensure that the capacity building goes beyond good stewardship of Agency funds, and leaves the organization as sustainable and self-sufficient as possible. To get there, USAID’s LW partnerships require a lot of communication to help them identify areas for improvement both before and after the LW award is granted.

Lesson #4: Keep the Big Picture in Mind

USAID contracting staff appreciate the importance of being available to help partners. As Bulatovic put it, “Working with local partners is one of our top priorities. In order to do that, you need to help them grow, and to do so you have to be in constant communication with them so they can learn how to engage us—how to respond to an RFA, for example. In our job description, it states the importance of being available to help partners. Our local partners can call me and ask me questions about, for example, reporting or budget preparation. We really try to be accommodating.” 

Taking this mindset into each conversation makes all the difference. USAID partners in Serbia, too, reported that whether the challenges they faced in their USAID partnership journey are new or a repeated pattern, USAID seeks to work through those challenges together. 

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Learn more about the results of the LW activities in Serbia from the following factsheets: