Proximity International: The Journey from Sub-Contractor to Prime

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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Proximity International: The Journey from Sub-Contractor to Prime 

Through the New Partnerships Initiative, USAID aims to tap into the local connections and expertise of partners who have little to no experience working with the Agency as a prime implementer. Read how Proximity International worked to meet USAID requirements and leveraged its deep experience working in remote areas and conflict zones to eventually win two prime USAID awards.

Going from a USAID sub-contractor to prime implementer can be a daunting experience, but for a small, woman-owned business with expertise in fragile markets, a determined effort paid off.

In May 2020, Proximity International, a USAID sub-contractor with offices in Amman and Washington, won its first prime contract from the Agency.  Under the multi-year award, Proximity will implement third-party monitoring to help oversee the performance of USAID’s stabilization activities in northeast Syria, where the firm maintains a team, as well as conduct  research and analysis to inform program design and management.  

"We needed to have this neutral, independent oversight monitoring and evaluating activities to make sure our assistance efforts served USAID’s intended stabilization goals," said Dana Hussein, project management specialist for USAID’s Jordan Mission.

Hussein said that Proximity research and analyses cover issues such as social cohesion, gender, and political and security dynamics, in addition to essential services, namely health, education, electricity, and water. 

"Proximity demonstrated its experience working in the region and they submitted a successful proposal," Hussein said.  

There are hurdles in working with new or underutilized partners, said Michael Ashkouri, who at the time of the award was director of the Acquisition and Assistance Office at the Jordan Mission. 

"In deciding whether to set aside a program for local firms, a U.S. small business, or underutilized partners, we look at the marketplace and we consider their availability, familiarity with the region, and their overall experience working with donors like USAID.”   

Ashkouri, now deputy director of the Office of Acquisition and Assistance in Washington, noted that small businesses typically start as sub-contractors and graduate to become primes. 

"If they are a new firm, they have to demonstrate they have in place the proper systems to successfully manage a USAID contract. However, it is the nature of the beast that small firms with limited staff have to grow into prime contracts naturally. The larger firms have sizable staffs they can shift from one project to another." 

For potential partners wishing to work with USAID, Ashkouri offered this advice: "Don't be shy. Questions are free, ask away, and we will share the answers. You don't lose anything by asking."     

Danya Chudacoff, a co-founder of the firm, which she and her business partner, Razan Abd El Haq, started in 2014, believes Proximity International won the prime award because it not only diligently met USAID’s criteria, but also has experience managing the risks inherent in such assignments.       

“We have a tolerance for risk, but we balance and manage it such that we don’t put team members in danger,” she said. “This comes from longtime experience working in fragile markets. Some organizations approach it more free-wheeling, and they learn the hard way when it catches up to them.” 

Although going from sub-contractor to prime awardee for USAID is a giant leap, Chudacoff said that once a business or organization has cleared the administrative hurdles, offered a concrete proposal, and won, the process becomes easier. 

“Since we won the award, USAID has been extremely helpful. They recognize they are working with a small business and are supporting us as we deliver on the contract. We are watching USAID learn how to better work with small businesses, and we are learning how to work more efficiently with USAID.” 

What advice does Chudacoff have for smaller companies or organizations that hope to win a USAID award? 

“To even consider working with USAID as a small organization, you have to make a deliberate effort to get your operations and finance house in order,” she said. “You have to be at a level where you have robust compliance systems in place. 

“But most of all, I don’t think you can hope to win your first project with USAID without proving you are the complete package in terms of knowledge and expertise.

“We’re well-suited because we’re good at what we do and have a proven track record. We know the territory. Our expertise will bring added value to USAID.”

It’s a good strategy: Just months after Proximity won its first prime award, it won a second.