Lessons from Civil Society and Operational NGOs: Encouraging Closer Collaboration and More Effective Partnerships with USAID
Mechanisms that Enable Civil Society
Recommendation: Promote the availability and use of mechanisms that strengthen partnerships with civil society, while reducing the obstacles and burdens for collaboration. For example, use assistance mechanisms that are as fast, flexible, and efficient as acquisitions.
USAID has at its disposal 26 implementing mechanisms it can use to engage with partners in the delivery of U.S. foreign assistance programming. However, USAID limits itself to a handful of mechanisms, and the use of cooperative agreements has decreased from 35 to 29 percent. One reason for this decline may be that there are more fast, flexible, and efficient acquisition mechanisms available and/or known to field missions, such as Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts.
The NGO community relies on grants and cooperative agreements (assistance) rather than contracts (acquisition). U.S. funding of an assistance mechanism provides support for the NGO’s activity, while U.S. funding of acquisition mechanisms provides support for the U.S. government’s activity. While the mission of the U.S. government and NGOs align under assistance mechanisms, the separation of the U.S. government and civil society is an important distinction. Oftentimes, NGOs are aiding in fragile, adverse, and in crisis conditions. The preservation of independence is a security factor that allows NGOs and civil society access in situations and regions where government cannot intervene.
U.S.-based NGOs have local affiliates and historic ties to local civil society, that enhance development outcomes by providing experience and capacity. This includes support and ties with women, youth, and marginalized communities. When contracts are used, the vendor, while taking a profit, engages the community only within the parameters of the agreement and without flexibility to adapt to changing environments. U.S. agencies better resource NGO-cultivated relationships to maximize program benefits and outcomes, while also encouraging relationships that promote local citizen participation in their own development efforts (which often span beyond a U.S. government supported activity and timeframe).
While there are benefits to the use of mechanisms such as IDIQs, which provide the flexibility to the field missions to “buy in” to access technical expertise and other services quickly, IDIQs erode relationships with civil society (for example, IDIQs limit “Grants Under Contracts” to $100,000, which typically represent a fraction of the overall program). USAID can enable better cooperation of NGOs under ID-IQs by eliminating the Grant Under Contract limit, or by raising it to a higher level commensurable to overall value of the IDIQ. In addition, more resources can reach beneficiaries under the assistance version of IDIQs – Leaders with Associate (LWA) awards. Like IDIQs, LWAs have speed and nimbleness for field-driven solutions, while also partnering to strengthen civil society at home and abroad.
Case Study: The VEGA LWA: A Model for Flexible, Fast, and Efficient Partnering with Civil Society
From 2004 to 2017, the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance Leader with Associate Award (VEGA LWA) was a flexible funding vehicle used to spur economic growth by efficiently and effectively partnering with civil society to incorporate highly-skilled volunteers into a wide range of field-driven development activities. The VEGA LWA scaled USAID’s mobilization of pro bono technical expertise by broadening the activities that could be accessed by missions worldwide, and streamlining that access through a consortium of volunteer-sending organizations called VEGA. Through the VEGA LWA, USAID field missions and bureaus in 41 countries partnered with VEGA to provide opportunity, tools, and training to more than 5 million people seeking self-sufficiency through nearly 40,000 days of expert volunteer service. This saved more than $30 million taxpayer dollars and nearly doubled the program value through cost share and leverage.
Throughout the life of the VEGA LWA, there was consistent demand from field missions not only because of the cost-effective development impact, but also for its speed and flexibility as a procurement mechanism. The average procurement lead times (PALT) under the VEGA LWA was three times faster than the USAID average (89 days versus 300 days). Unique to this type of funding mechanism, the VEGA LWA also included a competition among consortium members to ensure that missions received outstanding solutions from the best qualified implementers. The consortium model with a secretariat also provided substantial staff support to the missions, which made it efficient and practical to deploy volunteers. The VEGA LWA proved to be extremely adaptable and well-suited to meet a range of USAID development goals, from discrete technical assistance such as the Emerging Markets Development Advisers Program (EMDAP) to high-priority and large-scale development programs under Feed the Future (FTF), Power Africa and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and economic growth programs in Critical Priority Countries (CPCs) (such as Afghanistan and Iraq) and post-conflict countries (such as Sri Lanka and Cambodia).