Learning with Humentum: Massimo Lowicki-Zucca

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November 06, 2017

Learning with Humentum: Massimo Lowicki-Zucca

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing

"Learning with Humentum" profiles professionals who have taken advantage of our many learning opportunities. In this post, we talk with Massimo Lowicki-Zucca of World Education/Bantwana Initiative. Chief of Party for USAID/Uganda’s BETTER OUTCOMES project in Uganda for the last two and half years, Massimo (at right) is passionate about making a difference for the people of Uganda through this project. Here he talks about his career path, his learning experience with our flagship Rules & Regulations workshop and how he supports his team members.

Q:  How many years have you been working in international development?

I have been working in international development for the past 17 years, when I shifted careers from working as an economist in Italy. My first assignment was in North Uganda, as the violent insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army peaked. Following a few years in North Uganda, where I worked mainly on HIV/AIDS and emergency projects, I moved into the UN System and worked for UNICEF as global focal point on HIV in emergencies. Based in New York, I traveled for nearly six years to emergency-affected countries, providing technical support and training. After that experience, I rejoined the NGO world, and soon after I started managing a large USAID-funded activity focusing on orphans and vulnerable children in Uganda (the SCORE project,), first as deputy chief of party and then as chief of party (COP). My current position at World Education Inc/Bantwana Initiative is my second assignment as COP.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your current job responsibilities.

As chief of party of the “USAID/Uganda Better Outcomes for Children and Youth in Eastern and Northern Uganda” project, I have overall responsibility for the technical and financial management of the project and the coordination of all project activities and staff. I serve as the principal institutional liaison with USAID. I manage a team of more than 100 technical officers and 11 subawards with national and international NGOs.

Q: In September 2015, you took InsideNGO’s Rules & Regulations: USAID Grants & Cooperatives Agreements workshop in Uganda. Even at that point, you were a seasoned COP with five years of experience in leading projects. What motivated you to take this workshop?

As a COP of a USAID-funded activity, I have the great privilege to make a difference in the lives of a huge number of people, but at the same time I carry enormous responsibilities in terms of ensuring that the resources available for the implementation of project activities are utilized efficiently, effectively, and in compliance with the rather complex framework of rules and regulations that govern their use. Such rules are far from static and, in fact, evolve and change. Therefore, as a manager, I place great importance on being up to date with the normative framework for the resource I administer. It is not only a matter of not making mistakes or avoiding having expenses disallowed. It is also a matter of finding the most efficient ways to channel resources into activities, and into benefits for people who need them.

Q: Did you implement new processes or procedures with your team as a result of that experience?

Oh, yes. We were able to provide more precise advice to our recipients in the matter of cost-share. Our experience is that the implementing partner often has a great cost-share potential, but is just unaware of how to document it. We also enabled our implementing partners to make informed choices concerning how to factor indirect costs into their budget, with one of them opting for the de minimis 10% of modified total direct costs (MTDC) (ref 2CFR200:414 and 2CFR200:68). An important change concerned the interpretation of prior approval for restricted goods being deemed to have been met if the items are identified in the technical proposal and the cost included in the approved budget (as in the old Standard Provisions). Noting the ‘disappearance’ of this provision allowed the project to make a timely request for our AO’s concurrence to a procurement of agricultural inputs, which would otherwise have been at risk of being disallowed. We also improved our understanding of an often-ignored instrument, the fixed amount subaward, which enabled us to engage with some smaller recipients while building their capacity with the aim to make them eligible for a reimbursement award.

Q: And today, more than two years after taking this workshop? Do you feel that the impact of attending the workshop has been sustained?

Yes, indeed. Besides the actual concepts (which can change as the rules’ environment does), the workshop has been, in my experience, useful in shaping a method of work. Referencing relevant rules when making an argument, asking questions only when really needed, looking up the rules and regulations, regularly rereading your award (there often is important problem-solving information), and always checking the definitions for terms referenced in the rules! Words in 2CFR200 mean very specific things, beyond their general meaning in the English language.

Q: What would you tell other senior level leaders who might be recommending this course for others, but not considering it for themselves?

I would tell them that such attitude is irresponsible.

Q: As a chief of party, how do you instill a learning culture within your team members?

I regularly engage team members in the discussion: “Can we do this or not? How do we go about it? Says who? Where’s the evidence?” I encourage them to provide and defend interpretations, to look up data and relevant rules, and to weigh alternatives. Before laying out the strategy to carry out an intervention, or drafting programming guidance, my team regularly visits our project database, and examines available secondary data and baselines, in order to make sure that whatever they design is in sync with the reality we are working in. Every technical area regularly organizes reflection meetings to analyze progress (or lack thereof), challenges, innovations, and solutions, to improve the implementation during the following quarter.

After every major activity is completed, we hold reflection meetings to distill learning and correct, realign, and improve the approaches we have adopted. I regularly challenge my team to build and defend their arguments with evidence; I often respond to statements concerning our beneficiaries, project environment, or activities’ effectiveness with something like this: “Is this a fact or an opinion? Is this something we have actually measured? Is it systematic or anecdotal?” I have seen my team embrace this approach enthusiastically.

As part of the performance evaluation of every officer and manager, we identify areas for personal improvement during the following year, be they soft or technical skills, trainings, seminars, or other activities, and I endeavor to support them. Of course, I also support the training of every senior manager (program, finance, operations, grants) in my project on USAID rules and regulations.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

I guess I only wish to restate the point that being knowledgeable about the rules governing the utilization of USAID’s funds is an indispensable requirement for a senior manager and a responsibility both individually and for the organization that entrusts a project to his/her management. Once again, it is not just a matter of avoiding mistakes or not getting into trouble. It is about maximizing the good that any project can bring for people. It’s more than worth the effort.

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