Director of Finance and Grants, Department of Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program (DHAPP) Uganda
Reflecting on the past 18 years of my career working in finance and grants administration – 13 of which I have worked for URC in Uganda – I have learned a few truths about what it takes to successfully implement USAID and other U.S. government-funded projects.
Certainly, the project team itself, its leadership, and the caliber of the project staff, a commitment to technical excellence reflected in the activities implemented, and the weight placed on localization, all play key roles in the success of the many URC projects that I have been a part of. But at the end of the day, none of these components matter if the project is not compliant with USAID and other donors’ requirements.
Compliance – or lack thereof – can make or break a project in the eyes of the donor, and directly impact the implementer’s potential for future work.
Expand Localization by Improving Knowledge
As more and more USAID projects are awarded directly to local organizations, we can support them to become compliant with USAID requirements by tapping into our own experience and success. The projects we implement in partnership with local organizations are an opportunity for us to strengthen partner capacity in compliance – and consequently – their ability to seek USAID grants and contracts as prime recipients or grantees.
I have spent much of my career leading administration of small grant awards to local organizations, working very closely with a number of partners. From that experience, I have identified a few priority areas of growth related to compliance to focus on to support local organizations prepare for direct awards.
The biggest challenge for local implementers not yet receiving direct awards is a skills gap. Many local implementers simply do not yet have the systems in place or the capacity to implement awards to comply with USAID requirements. Strong internal systems, policies, and mechanisms related to human resources, finance, procurement, monitoring and evaluation and learning, branding and marking, and environmental compliance, are all key to successful U.S. government-funded projects.
Operationalizing Compliance in the Local Context
Something as simple as timekeeping can be a struggle for a local organization that has not previously tracked the time allocation of their employees on various projects. Smaller organizations may lack documented internal policies and guidelines that are specifically aligned with USAID rules and regulations for the recipients of their cooperative agreements and contracts.
Often – in my experience – local organizations now on a growth trajectory have not yet perceived a need for having the necessary systems in place, nor have they had a committed mentor willing to walk them through the process of establishing the building blocks to create compliant systems.
We can help our local partners navigate the changes required for them to become direct award recipients through mentorship and training as we work closely together in the implementation of our current projects. We’ve done this successfully in Uganda with the National Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda (NACWOLA) for example.
What may seem unachievable or overwhelming to a smaller, local organization with limited resources, such as financial record keeping, can be taught, applied, and practiced with simple tools such as Microsoft Excel – versus more expensive and complex accounting software systems requiring steady internet connections, such as QuickBooks. Less complicated solutions can still meet USAID’s compliance requirements and ensure proper stewardship of U.S. government funds.
Let’s commit, as international non-governmental organizations, to capitalize on our partnerships with local organizations as an opportunity to transfer skills. After all, isn’t that the essence of development work?