South Sudan, a nation founded in 2011 following a destructive civil war, is a challenging place for international development organizations and partners to work. Threats to the safety of foreign development workers are widespread, making implementation of projects extremely difficult. In this context, programming through local organizations, who are embedded in communities, and therefore can operate less conspicuously, is almost a necessity. So when the South Sudan Mission needed to acquire data about the quality of services being provided to people living with HIV/AIDS around South Sudan, these circumstances, combined with a Mission team that was open-minded about finding the right mechanism for achieving the Agency’s objectives, created the conditions for a first-of-its-kind direct contract award to a local organization in South Sudan.
“In South Sudan, the overall capacity of local organizations is limited, yet they are the foundation of any sustainable progress,” said Deputy Health Office Director and Team Lead for the HIV Portfolio John Mckay. “A number of them had received grants in the past and had been subcontractors, but none had competed directly for contracts, particularly PEPFAR contracts, which have complexities unique to that program, given its reporting and funding requirements.” PEPFAR, or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, is a U.S. Government interagency initiative to support HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention, and research around the world.
It was clear that a local organization would be the most knowledgeable to implement this data-collection project, as well as the most cost effective. Moreover, in the fragile security environment of South Sudan, a local partner would also have the access and connections to be able to carry out the project. But while the Mission had experience awarding grants to local organizations, this activity was different: it was a service for the benefit of USAID and, therefore, should be a contract, not a grant.
And so, Senior Program Management Specialist and HIV/AIDS Advisor Kandyang Jansuk, Contracting Officer Carter Saunders, and Mckay—who were developing the project—began to think: how can we make this work to award a direct contract to a local South Sudanese organization?
There were heated debates internally, but the level of trust among the Mission staff was foundational to reaching the determination to move forward. “We all listened to each other,” said Jansuk, “and decided to do what hadn’t been done before.”
“The program just lent itself to a local organization, even if we weren’t sure there were local organizations who would be able to perform the work both technically and administratively,” said Saunders. “So the first step was to investigate the market.”
Jansuk and Mckay began by conducting market research, interviewing several local organizations that had served as subcontractors on other USAID projects to understand their technical and administrative capacity. They found that there was strong technical capability among these organizations. But there would be significant gaps to fill on the administrative capacity side, even with organizations that had some USAID experience. To address this, the Mission team developed a solicitation that would (1) provide the Mission the required data, (2) be administratively easy for a local organization and USAID to manage, and (3) allow low-resourced local partners to maintain cash flow.
The Mission released the solicitation, but, knowing that a direct local contract would be new for the Mission and for potential partners, a key step was extensive communication before the award. The Mission conducted two pre-bidder conferences: one focused on technical matters and the second focused on administration and award management, with over 20 organizations.
Despite the Mission’s efforts to keep the solicitation as clear as possible, there were still errors and misinterpretations by potential partners. The Mission had to amend the solicitation twice to simplify the submission requirements and answer questions. In the end, an award of $350,000 for community-led monitoring was successfully made to USAID/South Sudan’s first-ever local contractor. It was a ground-breaking achievement, with implications for USAID Missions around the world looking to begin or expand their local contract awards.
Important factors in the success of this direct acquisition award were its simplicity and flexibility. First, the Mission developed clear, achievable targets that could form what is called a “firm fixed price award.” This arrangement meant that the local partner would be paid for hitting particular milestones, allowing the partner to maintain their cash flow and not get overwhelmed with compliance requirements while giving the Mission confidence by enabling it to certify completion of each step. The structure also intentionally included an early milestone, so that the partner could receive a payment near the beginning of the project and also so that they could demonstrate an early achievement. Second, the Mission communicated, learned, and responded flexibly in the pre-award stages, which led to beneficial updates to the solicitation.
“A win from this process, in my opinion,” said Saunders, “is that we showed how technical needs, good business judgement, operational realities like the security environment, and overall USAID objectives to engage local firms all came together to a successful award in one of the most challenging places USAID works. There were bumps, but eventually we got there, and we know how to do it in the future when the circumstances are right.”
The USAID/South Sudan team hopes that their experience can serve as a resource for other Missions that might have suitable opportunities for direct contracts with local partners. When asked for advice for other Missions, Saunders suggests: “Start really small, with projects that are specific, concrete, and achievable. Find a niche where this type of award is helpful or even necessary. And be prepared to invest time into it. Also plan for how the partner will remain liquid given many local partners are low-resourced.”
Saunders and the others acknowledge that a central challenge for Missions is the time needed to engage with these partners, since many Mission teams are already stretched. In this context, Agencywide efforts like the New Partnerships Initiative and the Partnerships Incubator, which seek to break down USAID requirements and processes for new partners, can be especially transformative. The more that local partners—like the partners in South Sudan—can be supported to compete directly for grants and contracts, the better the Agency can engage with them to achieve mutual development objectives.
This article first appeared on USAID.gov.