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Story and Perspective

Country-led Operations at Pathfinder: Localization is Working for Us

Nino Willsea

Africa South Asia + MENA

By: Nino Willsea, Senior Director of Operations
With contributions from: Priti Patel, Mark Hodges, Megan Quinn-Mueller and Sharon O’Daniel

Localization, localization, localization. It’s on everyone’s mind and is probably in the strategic plan of every company working in the global health and development sector. But what does localization mean for Pathfinder, and specifically, for our global operations?

At Pathfinder localization = country led, where our strategies, programs, budgets, projects, and decision-making are centered in the countries where we work, and country teams, working with their country governments and other stakeholders, have the resources and capacities to drive sustained impact for the people we serve.

At Pathfinder we consider ourselves a locally led, global network, with well-resourced local teams, supported by a global network of Pathfinders filling various operational functions, including information technology, grants and contracts, procurement and administration, security, and policies, to name a few.

Our country-led journey did not start yesterday. We were instituting, pioneering, and implementing this approach before localization became relevant. Why did we start working on this so early, and what practical steps did we take to advance our country-led strategy in real life? What are the challenges that we currently face? What could we do differently?

To help me answer these questions, I’ve asked several of my team leads from global operations to provide their insight, opinion, and perspective on our country-led strategy.

Country Directors, Africa (left-right): Joaquim Fernando, Amina Aminu Dorayi, Marie-Claude Mbuyi, Lydia Saloucou, Joseph Komwihangiro and Mengistu Asnake. Pathfinder Board Meeting, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nov. 2023. Photo: Java Studios

Information Technology (IT)

Country-led IT has been a way of life for years at Pathfinder. In 2017, IT launched a model that engaged IT agents in every country and a gave them a role within the larger IT infrastructure. This global support model resulted in our “follow-the-sun” strategy, ensuring Pathfinders everywhere could count on receiving support from IT agents close to home during their own working hours, instead of waiting for the US-based IT team to clock in. 

The global support model has provided IT agents based in Pathfinder’s countries of operation access to global tools, permissions to solve problems locally and independently, connections to resources to drive innovation, empowerment make decisions, and opportunities for knowledge transfer and capacity strengthening. 

IT will continue to empower and advance local IT staff and regional IT managers with expanded roles and responsibilities and professional development and training.  Local staff will set device standards, establish long-term agreements with local vendors, approve the procurement of IT equipment, and be the focal point in identifying gaps in technology.  We will strive to eliminate inefficiencies, provide more visibility to the large catalog of applications and digital tools available to Pathfinders, provide options to pool resources, and ensure the highest level of cyber security protections. 

Grants and Contracts (G&C)

At the heart of having country-led grants and contracts functions is ensuring subaward officers in Pathfinder’s countries of operation have advanced skills to manage subawards locally and take part in more high-risk decision-making. We strive to create tools and resources for our subaward officers and subgrantees based in our countries of operation that are donor compliant, user-friendly, and comprehensive.

Pathfinder’s subaward resource center provides a step-by-step guide in subaward management for subaward officers, with over 100 tools and templates in addition to detailed guidance. Our online trainings, which include in-depth trainings on various topics, opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, and mentoring, allow subaward officers to become certified and have increased decision-making authority over our grants and contracts with subgrantees.

We are continuously learning from the process of adopting a country-led approach to grants and contracts, and adapting as we go; for example, we are now offering various levels of support to each subaward officer depending on the volume of the subawards they manage and their competing priorities, as many are also responsible for other areas, such as IT, finance, and procurement.


The country-led strategy for procurement started in 2019, with the ultimate goal of shifting more approval authority to our non-US country offices. Most of our procurements are now handled where our projects are implemented.

To move toward country-led procurements, we knew we needed to strengthen the capacity of procurement staff and provide them with a standardized procurement policy, forms, and templates. All our colleagues now follow one global policy with established quality standards, regardless of where the procurement is taking place.

Through procurement certification trainings, our procurement staff across Pathfinder now have established relationships with each other, sharing tools/templates, as well as best practices and challenges. These training courses have empowered our staff and given them a sense of ownership over the procurement process. Once trained, they are tasked with providing step-down training to their colleagues.

Although we have decentralized procurement, we still maintain controls through our quality standards; for example, all evaluations are prepared, reviewed, and approved by three different people from three different departments or procurement committees to avoid subjectivity and bias in the vendor selection process.

The role of the global procurement department has shifted from being involved in every local procurement to supporting US-initiated procurements; project-funded procurements as needed; and most importantly, to serve as a resource for Pathfinders procurement staff.

Currently, only procurements over $100,000-$150,000 are required to come to the global procurement department for review and guidance. Items classified as restricted goods/services by USAID also come to global procurement for review, regardless of dollar value, although in some countries we are looking at ways to localize this responsibility, giving teams more familiarity with donor regulations.

While challenges have arisen during the country-led procurement process, we continue to be flexible and agile in how we respond. We will continue to provide trainings and build best-in-class systems and processes for better monitoring and compliance of procurement.


Our global security function looks nothing like it did just one year ago.  Our previous structure embodied the traditional power dynamic, with a director of security based in the US as the subject matter expert who connected with security focal points (who were not typically security personnel) in each Pathfinder country. 

Pathfinder now has three regional security managers, based in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Pakistan, who each bring a wealth of knowledge about the particular security needs in their respective countries and regions. Our regional security managers bring best-in-class security management practices and systems to Pathfinder, following trends and drawing on their local and regional networks to help leaders based in the countries and regions they support to make informed decisions and mitigate and respond to security risks. They have access to standardized security tools, templates, and training and share their knowledge with one another through opportunities for country-to-country learning.

Regional security managers work closely with country-based security focal points and country directors to assess risk and put mitigation and contingency plans in place when security incidents occur. Country directors are responsible for day-to-day security-related decisions.

When there is a critical incident or other key event, Pathfinder’s Presidents for Africa and South Asia, Middle East, and North Africa, based in Burkina Faso and Pakistan, respectively, step in. The Presidents are then accountable for maintaining the safety and security of Pathfinder staff, assets, and programs in countries within their regions.  In practice, this means they provide strategic direction for our organization-wide security efforts, approve security staffing decisions and country safety and security plans, and work closely with the country director and regional security manager to make security-related determinations.

The shift in power dynamics can feel uncomfortable at times, simply because it’s different.  And as often is the case with something new, we do find ourselves needing to remind each other who to go to for what as new scenarios occur. But we’re confident the country-led strategy as it applies to global security will soon feel like the norm.

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