Systems focus: Catherine McMahon on the journey to advocate for intentional, locally-led transitions

February 28, 2024
Author: Jasmine Kato-Naughton, Catherine McMahon

The SAS+ Advisory Group provides advice on and support for influencing efforts for SAS+. They lend their specific expertise and extensive experience to strengthen SAS+ and ensure it incorporates a myriad of perspectives. Since they are so integral to our work, we want to share their valuable knowledge with you. 

Catherine McMahon is a member of the SAS+ Advisory Group and an independent consultant in the international development sector.


Like many in the sector, Catherine began her time in international development in the Peace Corps. She then began training USAID staff, before shifting into the world of NGOs and INGOs.

“That was how I cut my teeth and I first started thinking about the role of local organizations and sort of how INGOs work with them through that work.”

Two projects left a particular impact on her. In Liberia: “It was the first time I saw USAID in a solicitation specifically say, we don’t wanna see exclusive teaming agreements with these local partners […] where their main goal is to work with them. […] We sort of learned from talking to these partners that some of our competitors were not being fully transparent about that.”

Local partners were being asked to sign exclusive agreements, which would ultimately force them to “put all their eggs in one basket” and become severed from accessing resources from multiple projects and partnerships. 

“We were trying to tell all these partners […] you shouldn’t go exclusive because you’re the real value in this situation, and you should be able to be on whatever team wins.”

This left a lasting impression on her.

“The proposal I worked on didn’t win though. So that one’s also one that kind of hurts to talk about all these years later.”

Another project took Catherine to Egypt, shortly after the Arab Spring.

“It was another eye-opening experience, […] even though the mission was very genuine and really wanted to make sure that these resources were getting into the hands of local organizations, it really demonstrated to me how much their systems don’t allow that to happen and how many obstacles are just built into their normal ways of working.”

Obtaining Arabic translations of key documentation took time, and local partners were expected to navigate complex bureaucratic processes in line with USAID standards.

Both of these cases demonstrated to Catherine that “even when USAID’s intentions are the best, their systems really make it hard to meet their own localization goals.” It got her thinking about how she might use her own resources and influence to transform partnership approaches, to make them more transparent and power-informed. Her experiences in the sector led her to Stopping As Success.

“When the opportunity came to be part of this Advisory Group, I jumped right at it. It’s right up my alley.”

A Systems-led Approach

Organizational systems are not created equally – and they create obstacles to localization efforts. Many INGOs are afforded certain luxuries because of their size and proportion of USAID funding.

“They can afford to set up all their systems to pump out everything in exactly the way that USAID needs it. If you’re a small organization and you a) aren’t used to those things and b) maybe […] you don’t have the knowledge to make it happen, or even if you did, you can’t necessarily afford to revamp your whole accounting system or hire a business development team.”

Those working in funding organizations can often compound these issues, too.

“I think what happens is people on the USAID side have gotten used to having things given to them very well packaged and exactly how they want them. Sometimes […] they need to shift their thinking a little bit to say, [for example], perfect English is not a requirement for this situation. Or okay, they didn’t fill out this form exactly correctly, but instead of saying that means [they’re] not ready to receive the money we say, like, how do we help them do that in the right way?”

“There are efforts in that direction for sure with an idea, but it’s definitely a long process.”

Shifting Responsibilities

For Catherine, SAS+ presents a way forward.

One of the things I’ve liked best […] is this focus on the idea that it’s the responsibility of INGOs to approach their partnerships from the beginning, with an eye to: how is this transition going to happen?”

SAS+ places emphasis on cultivating partnerships that are clear on transition from the very beginning, ensuring that structures are in place for a more equitable, transparent approach to partnerships. 

“When you have this suite of tools and resources and learning to show people, it makes them more likely to put their money where their mouth is, or walk their own talk.”

This doesn’t just apply to USAID-funded organizations either. Catherine has come across a number of other US-based organizations that are having trouble with cracking the nut on locally led transitions. Together, they point not only to a capacity issue, but a wider systems issue.

“It would be a great legacy for SAS+ if people in 10 years were still using the term locally led transitions, and talking about the transition as the ultimate measure of success and as a best practice for how organizations work together.”

“Continuing to focus on that advocacy role and encouraging people in the sector, to just remind them: we’re all saying we want this to happen, so here are the things you need to do. We have research that tells you that… This is how you make it happen and you have to be intentional about it. So let’s […] have you come use our tools to do that.”