3 Questions with Roula Moussa on Private Sector Engagement in Lebanon
This post originally appeared on the Chemonics blog.
Roula Moussa is the CEO and founder of Netways. In 2017, she created DiasporaID, a digital platform that connects and promotes collaboration among Lebanese diaspora communities worldwide. As a partner under the USAID Asia and Middle East Economic Growth Best Practices (AMEG) program, Roula shares her experience pitching and scaling DiasporaID to USAID and recommends ways that the development community can further engage private sector partners.
Chemonics Project Management Director Christy Sisko also contributed to this interview.
1. How were you introduced to USAID and how did that result in future collaboration on DiasporaID?
I was introduced to USAID/Lebanon while working pro bono with USAID and Microsoft on the global Ta3mal initiative. Ta3mal, as part of Microsoft’s YouthWorks program, is a platform that offers solutions for both enterprises and job seekers by providing easy access to hundreds of online private-sector skills training modules, job matching services, and career guidance, free of charge. As a dedicated partner to USAID, Ta3mal shares Netways’ corporate social responsibility objectives of supporting youth employability and skills readiness. Ta3mal also introduced us to the idea of private sector engagement with donors and how it could spur technology innovations.
After this positive experience, I approached USAID/Lebanon to pitch DiasporaID. I researched the Country Development Cooperation Strategy and current programs implemented in Lebanon to understand development priorities for the mission prior to my pitch. I encourage the private sector to be proactive and reach out to USAID to discuss innovations and solutions. I have always found USAID to be welcoming and open to new solutions to meet development objectives. You don’t need to wait for anyone to approach you first! After my pitch, USAID/Lebanon, with the help of USAID/Washington, invested in the rollout of our platform domestically and internationally through the Asia and Middle East Economic Growth Best Practices (AMEG) program. My research, proactive engagement, and solutions-oriented pitch is what led to my successful partnership with USAID.
2. What concerns did you have about donor engagement, and what were some lessons learned? Do you have recommendations for other private sector partners searching for opportunities to work with donor organizations?
We had already developed DiasporaID when it was pitched to USAID, so we had to think strategically about the intellectual property rights and how that language would be worded in our agreements with AMEG. Our biggest concern was about sustainability because we knew that DiasporaID could be applied to future programs in any technical area that could benefit from diaspora engagement. We always kept an open dialogue with USAID about the sustainability of DiasporaID, from the initial pitch to contract negotiations with AMEG. USAID, through AMEG, provided the exact support we needed to help us during startup. AMEG helped us with user adoption, including spreading the word about DiasporaID to get users on the site. In this respect, USAID’s investment in DiasporaID contributed to its sustainability. I encourage the private sector to work with donors from the outset to create a tangible medium- to long-term plan of support and engagement with a focus on sustainability.
Donor funding can often be tied to specific activities or objectives with specific requirements that we pour time and resources into, but — when the funding ends, private sector partners are sometimes left wondering — was this really where we should have been spending our time and resources? Businesses don’t have the luxury to work this way. We must dedicate our attention to the aspects of our interventions that will ensure sustainability, progress, and growth, and we are hopeful that donors will keep thinking of ways to engage the private sector that align with these goals. For example, working with AMEG allowed us to focus on our outreach and pitching the platform internationally to increase the number of users on the platform, which aligned perfectly with AMEG’s goal of increasing diaspora engagement in economic development.
As sometimes happens, staffing changes occurred at USAID over the course of the year, and a few original champions for our engagement moved on to their next posting, and understandably, priorities shifted. Based on this experience, I encourage the private sector to seek out opportunities for engagement that last more than a year. Longer-term opportunities often ensure there is time to show tangible results, to share knowledge within the mission itself, and to build effective relationships with multiple staff. If possible, I would also include internal outreach at USAID or with the donor agency you are working with as part of the scope of work for the activity.
When first engaging with donors, I recommend finding a champion (or several!) within the agency who understands innovation and investment. For me, this was a series of people,* and I am very grateful for their support and investment in DiasporaID. Second, ensure you are educated on donors’ various financing mechanisms. Because many private sector partners do not understand the funding mechanisms available to them through donor organizations, I recommend that private sector partners proactively research these. For Netways, USAID/Washington was helpful in explaining our financing options to us. Be sure to also think through goals and metrics that serve both innovation and sustainable development. Lastly, make sure your goals align with the development objectives of the donor before you reach out. This will help you determine if there is funding available and if there is buy-in for your innovation. It will also show donors that you have shared an interest in development objectives and are aiming for long-term engagement.
3. How do you think donors could more effectively seek out private sector partners, and what can they do to promote private sector innovation?
The mechanism for soliciting private sector partners needs to continue adapting. Requests for proposals (RFPs) could be replaced with pitch competitions, challenges, hackathons, and open calls for concepts. Donors need to come to terms with the fact that writing proposals or grant applications for donors is a skillset that private sector partners may not necessarily have. In other words, RFPs can be barriers to engagement. How donors engage with the private sector needs to align with how the private sector already seeks interest and investment in their products and services.
If donors provided an appealing outreach and promotional platform for the private sector, this could drive more private sector engagement. Donors should consider innovations they support as their own investment and endorse their use. For example, donors should weave private-sector innovations into program descriptions and illustrative activities in their RFPs. I have seen diaspora engagement referenced in several RFPs recently and a mention of DiasporaID could be referenced as a possible tool to leverage. Support in outreach and promotion will promote the sustainability of private-sector innovations.
For more info on DiasporaID, visit www.diasporaid.com.
*Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, Mona Yacoubian, Carolyn (Teddy) Bryan, Anne Patterson, Cybill Sigler, Georges Frenn, William Butterfield, and William Baldridge