Development is an inherently collaborative process and so engaging with stakeholders is essential when designing and implementing effective development strategies, projects, and activities. By engaging across technical, project, program support or development objective teams, with other USAID units, or with local communities, host governments, partners, donors, and other external stakeholders, we can identify areas of shared interest and potential cooperation, avoid duplication of efforts, share knowledge about what works and what needs adjustment, and develop innovative approaches to shared development challenges. When we don't invest in collaboration, we create information silos, miss opportunities, and lack critical perspectives that can make the difference between success and failure in our development interventions.
Identify the key players. With limited time and resources, we cannot collaborate with all internal and external stakeholders. We must make choices about who is most essential and what form collaboration should take with each stakeholder to create change in a development context. The first step is identifying important internal and external stakeholders in our system through some type of stakeholder analysis process, such as collaboration mapping or network mapping. Internal collaboration also requires strategic analysis and decision-making, even if we don't utilize a formal stakeholder analysis tool. Prioritizing collaboration with teams, organizations and networks within USAID missions and other US government agencies, implementing partner organizations, and across the myriad of local actors that are critical in a given context can add value through better-informed interventions, while it breaks down information silos and leverages our development investments for greater impact.
Be strategic. All forms of engagement can be valid—basic information exchange, consultation, coordination, partnership, and co-creation—depending on what we are trying to accomplish, who the stakeholders are, and their expectations, needs and particular relationship with the development issue at hand. Because of this, effective collaboration happens when we are strategic about whom to collaborate with and how. Consider the roles each stakeholder plays in the system, their influence related to the desired development outcome, areas of common interest, and your practical ability to work with each respective stakeholder.
Establish shared expectations. True engagement isn’t a unilateral activity. In order to make the most of our collaboration, we need to have a common understanding with our stakeholders about how we will work together and toward what goal. Being clear and upfront with our expectations, asking others to do the same, and using those conversations to find areas of mutual interest/potential can help prevent misunderstandings down the road and ensure the best alignment of objectives. Surfacing those expectations can sometimes be easier said than done: internally, we may struggle to reach consensus ourselves; and when engaging with others, we may not feel confident that we have a complete and unbiased picture of their expectations. That’s why facilitation and trust-building are so important (see the Tips below for more).
Resource it. It is easy to forget, but stakeholder engagement takes time and resources, as well as specialized skills in designing and facilitating effective interactions. We need to allocate both time and funds for collaborative activities with stakeholders, including:
- Facilitators, venues, and other costs associated with collaboration and learning events and activities with partners and stakeholders.
- Communications support to adequately share key learning and solicit feedback and other tacit and contextual knowledge from our stakeholders.
Depending upon the context, if any of the participants have limited experience with collaborative platforms/processes, it may also be necessary to spend additional time and other resources in pre-planning to ensure that everyone understands the value of equal participation among stakeholders and the necessary balance between sharing and listening.
Facilitate, rather than create, development. Engagement and collaboration with the communities, host governments (both national and sub-national), local organizations, and individuals we support through our interventions is critical for sustainable success. This means taking a facilitative approach—one that prioritizes indirect interventions led by and among existing actors at strategic points within a system rather than direct interventions provided by a development outsider—to collaborate with these key stakeholders. Such an approach is common to market systems/value chain and democracy and governance activities, while increasingly applied in health, education and natural resource management. In many programs, using community-driven, participatory approaches throughout the Program Cycle will increase local ownership and, most likely, sustainability of results.
Remember USAID’s convening power. USAID and its partners—as well as other donors and key development actors—need to program influence as well as dollars. USAID staff have always influenced other actors through persuasion—for example, by persuading government ministers to effect policy reform, or persuading other donors to adopt specific technical approaches or agree to a particular distribution of responsibilities. USAID staff, along with its partners, use influence in thought leadership forums as well, sharing knowledge, promising practices, and innovations that others can adapt and apply. By leveraging strategic opportunities to exchange knowledge with donors, counterparts, stakeholders, and other development actors—for example, through advisory group meetings, round table events, or learning summits—USAID not only can improve the coordination of activities, but also influence how other actors use their resources.
Effective engagement takes trust. Stakeholders have to know that we value their thoughts, opinions, and experiences. Building these relationships takes dedicated time, but it allows greater focus on the end development goal. Trusting relationships also enable us to connect with a broader network to increase situational awareness and contextual understanding that can further inform program implementation in many ways.