Evolution of the NATAF – three lessons for delivering technical assistance in uncertain environments

Everyone in international development knows one thing for certain – there is hardly ever such thing as certainty. The North Africa Technical Assistance Facility (NATAF) – a dynamic, demand-driven programme funded by the United Kingdom’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) – was designed with this in mind, to provide flexible support to five countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Algeria – as well as the region as a whole.

Besides carrying out the five-year programme from 2017 to May 2022 through our Governance, Security and Justice practice, we also brought in our monitoring, evaluation and learning team to help shape the NATAF through evolving lessons and learning. In this blog, Zinnie Cowing, Junior Consultant in our Monitoring, Evaluation, Research & Learning practice, shares some of the insights gained during our work on NATAF – and what they mean for future technical assistance (TA) programmes in the North Africa region and beyond.

Overall, you could say that delivering the NATAF was a real lesson in how to deal with unpredictability. Shifting political landscapes and changing priorities in the countries and at home required us to keep a flexible mindset and even more flexible approach to our work. We supported a wide range of actors – governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multilateral partners. NATAF’s thematic areas were just as versatile, including climate change, open societies and human rights, conflict mitigation and peacebuilding, economic development, security and justice, and education. In other words: change was inevitable.

The most significant contextual challenges were:

  • The merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID), to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO),
  • The COVID-19 pandemic,
  • The consequent reduction in the UK’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income.

As our team adapted to these developments, we learned plenty of useful lessons for future TA facilities operating in uncertain contexts. These are three of them:

1. Highly adaptive programmes with flexible funds can mitigate disruptions caused by crises and unforeseen circumstances by filling gaps in funding to sustain relationships, projects and results.

Thanks to NATAF’s flexible funding approach, the NATAF was able to fill in gaps that emerged for embassies when their own budgets were impacted by Covid-related budget cuts, albeit at a smaller scale. This is a useful consideration for programmes seeking to operate in unpredictable environments. The flexibility to adapt and reallocate funds may prevent the loss of hard-won results.

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought international travel to a halt, we were also able to shift to online delivery models and spend travel costs on the project instead, improving projects’ value for money. This had the added benefit of broadening the TA’s reach and accessibility through webinars and other online learning events. Such hybrid approaches to delivering future technical assistance programming will gain importance in the future.

2. In-country national staff, such as Country Leads and consultants, are crucial for maintaining relationships with national stakeholders and ensuring relevance of TA to recipients.

The increased use of, and reliance on, in-country national staff – such as Country Leads and consultants – due to the inability of international staff and subcontractors to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic was crucial for maintaining relationships with national stakeholders and for projects to continue. Their nuanced understanding of the national context ensured NATAF was also deemed highly relevant by national stakeholders.

Future technical assistance facilities would therefore benefit from the increased use of national staff on projects. On one hand, to maximise a facility’s relevance for national stakeholders. On the other hand, to ensure that projects are able to continue in the event of unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. This also aligns with the international ‘aid localisation agenda’.

3. The NATAF has demonstrated that TA facilities can successfully be used as a platform for wider political conversations in line with diplomatic priorities, while simultaneously achieving development goals.

The NATAF has proven that diplomatic and development goals can be jointly achieved through TA programming. The flexible, demand-driven nature of the NATAF – which responded to embassy requests and partner government recipient needs, rather than creating or shaping demand – provided an entry point for the British Government’s engagement with, and access to, important national stakeholders. This access has facilitated wider political conversations that have ultimately supported diplomatic goals in the North Africa region, while simultaneously achieving development aims.

While NATAF has come to an end now, we are sure the experience of the last five years has provided valuable lessons for future technical assistance facilities to be taken forward. Likewise, NATAF was also a unique learning experience for our teams across the business. Working hand in hand, we were able to inform and improve delivery at real time and make NATAF a success – despite the turbulent times we live in.

If you are interested in learning more about the NATAF, you can watch our programme summary video below.