Sunday, January 29, 2012

SPA – what is it, really?

Below is a description on Peace Corps Moldova's Small Project Assistance (SPA) fund, which our review board put together early this fall to clarify the purpose of the program for the new group of volunteers.  The background to this post can be found here.  We've recently undergone a pretty thorough review of our SPA program, refocusing on the overriding goals and tweaking some of our policies to match that.  If there are any readers out there who work on their country's SPA program - or a similar program for that matter - I'm curious to hear thoughts on this.

SPA – what is it, really?
SPA exists through a special inter-agency agreement with USAID (plain English: it’s their money, we just get to spend/administer it). As such, the program is unique in that its goal furthers both USAID and Peace Corps’ missions (plain English: we can’t do whatever we want with the $). SPA has one overriding program imperative: "to increase the capabilities of local communities to conduct low-cost, grassroots sustainable development." This objective is significantly different from a goal of simply “conducting sustainable development.” It also informs the only success indicator against which we report: # of HCNs who demonstrate new capacity to guide a project through the complete PDM cycle as a result of collaborating in a SPA project.

The reason that USAID funds PC projects through the SPA program as a part of the Participating Agency Program Agreement (2009) is to teach HCNs all stages of the PDM cycle, including proposal writing, as a form of community capacity building. The focus of the program is not to fund volunteers' community projects or to teach volunteers about project design and management (though it has these positive effects).

USAID considers giving this money to Peace Corps an efficient use of funds because we have long-term, deep relationships with partners whom we can guide through the PDM cycle step by step. It's not so much that we know any better what communities' needs are, but that the process of working very closely and intensively with a project from start to finish is one of the best ways to teach these skills. In short, the project itself is of significantly less importance to USAID than the skills partners develop that can be applied in future community project work. We might not always agree with this sentiment when considering a potential project. With any other program goal, however, USAID would feel better qualified to implement the project itself. As a rule of thumb, the best projects come from the space where donor and implementer goals overlap, but this also requires the honesty to be able to walk away from projects sometimes. SPA is no exception, though we are fortunate in having a very broad donor goal.

On a deeper level, this program design speaks to Peace Corps’ broader philosophy of sustainability. We are not here simply to do, but instead to teach through collaboration with others. In the classroom, we don’t just teach students, but teachers as well. With mayors, we help to teach technology, not simply type documents. The idea of sustainability is no different with any other community project, even when it includes outside funding.

Sometimes this fact is mind-numbingly frustrating – it’s a much higher bar, so high that few organizations engage in the process on the level we do. This level of support is inconceivable for USAID (or any big development organization). But this is also the brilliance of the program: it plays to Peace Corps’ unique strengths in the development field as well as each of our unique relationships that are built on mutual trust and collaboration. Thus, this same difficulty is also the unique value of SPA – in all the grant making development programs our committee members have examined, there is nothing else like SPA out there. And it’s also one of the reasons we have so much respect for all of you.

What is Capacity Building, and what is Capacity Building Through Education
Business defines "capacity building" as "planned development of (or increase in) knowledge, output rate, management, skills, and other capabilities of an organization through acquisition, incentives, technology, and/or training." In easier terms, capacity building means increasing the organization's ability to do what it does, to fulfill its mission and its goals. For the SPA program, projects must include two forms of capacity building: 1) the aforementioned increase in project design and management skills, and 2) a capacity building element through education (classes or trainings).

Here's example of how this might look: If your project sets out to bring running water to the school in order to improve students' health and to decrease the number of absences, the project may also do something like conduct health classes on the threats of infectious diseases -- or maybe conduct a hand washing campaign to decrease illness and a civic engagement campaign about taking care of "our" school so students will keep the indoor bathrooms clean. These training are matched with the goals of the project. For the trainings to increase the capacity of the school, they should not only be conducted by the PCV, but they should be conducted with a one or more HCN who will be able to conduct such classes themselves later on. In this way, the project uses education to increase the capacity of the organization, and in so doing, increases the sustainability of the intervention as well as the likelihood of meeting project objectives.

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