Learning with InsideNGO: Irinel Cocos

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March 07, 2017

Learning with InsideNGO: Irinel Cocos

Irinel Cocos (above at right, in orange scarf) at a meeting with community peer leaders and survivors network in Jessore District Bangladesh. At back is David Dobrowolski, senior director of civil society & education at Winrock International.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing

"Learning with InsideNGO" profiles professionals who have taken advantage of our many learning opportunities. In this post, we talk with Irinel Cocos of  Winrock International (at right). Chief of Party for USAID’s Bangladesh Counter Trafficking in Persons Program for the last two years, Irinel is passionate about creating a learning environment for her team. Here she shares the story of her own recent workshop experience with InsideNGO and why she thinks that even experienced senior leaders can benefit from taking a course on a subject with which they’re already familiar.

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

I have over 20 years of experience delivering international humanitarian assistance programs, specializing in judicial reform, civil society engagement, trafficking in persons, gender equality, and security-sector reform across 14 countries spanning Asia, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, Africa, and Europe.

Tell us a little bit about your current job responsibilities.

I lead the Bangladesh Counter Trafficking in Persons Program (BC/TIP) program, which is addressing trafficking in persons (TIP) prevention, survivor protection and care, perpetrator prosecution, and effective partnerships to better coordinate stakeholder responses to TIP. I also manage annual planning and implementation of activities and deliverables, monitoring and evaluation, the reporting of program evaluation, and lessons learned.

I supervise a 14-member team, which includes a team leader, finance and administrative officer, program managers, program officers, M&E specialists, and administrative staff. I oversee a program budget of US $5 million.

We are working hard to build the capacity of local TIP actors to receive direct US government (USG) assistance under USAID’s Forward initiative and to ensure that all financial activity is carried out in accordance with the annual budget allocations, Winrock policy, and USAID guidelines.

As COP, I’m responsible for submitting timely and accurate program, financial, and procurement reports to USAID and Winrock and for maintaining close communications with USAID and providing continuing updates of program progress. We also offer technical assistance, support, and oversight to local partner NGOs, and technical assistance, support, and information to national and local government officials. And of course, I hire and supervise local project staff and evaluate their performance as well as oversee program sustainability strategy, including local capacity building and private sector engagement.

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

Since the beginning of the assignment I have tried—and believe I have succeeded—in establishing good relationships with the staff and building their trust. Clear communication, engaging everyone in dialogue, listening, and discussing ideas are some of my approaches. I prefer to use coaching rather than teaching. I believe it is fundamentally important to encourage questioning and critical thinking within the team. I have used all these methods to achieve a continual learning environment—not just for the team but for me as well. We always do what we jokingly call a “post-mortem” after every single event, activity, or intervention to analyze and assess what went well and what didn’t and to learn from our own experiences as well as from that of other programs and organizations. I encourage persistence, flexibility, collaboration, establishment of priorities, and continuous review of our work. Our thinking and approaches are revisited periodically, and if we assess lack of progress, we try new or alternative (sometimes completely out of the box) delivery methods, trying to perhaps look at things from different angles, to achieve the goals we have set.

Sometimes, being so focused on programmatic implementation, achieving targets, and ensuring both quality and quantity, we tend to forget how much work our program managers and financial and administrative staff are doing and what they go through to ensure compliance with rules and regulations.

Irinel Cocos, Chief of Party

Winrock International

In November, you yourself took both InsideNGO’s Rules & Regulations: USAID Grants & Cooperatives Agreements and USAID Subaward Management workshops in Bangkok. You are a seasoned COP with considerable work experience in this area already. What motivated you to take this workshop?

I had an in-depth induction training provided by Winrock HQ when I started working on the program, but USAID regulations are quite fluid and are often revised and changed. I felt I needed a refresher, and I also wanted to better understand some of the challenges faced by the financial and administrative side of the project when supporting the programmatic side. Our program was also in the process of selecting additional partners, and I wanted to make sure that I had a clear understanding of USAID regulations in subaward management. That said, clearly another main benefit to me personally was to come away with a more holistic view of program management—not just programmatic but across the finance and administrative areas as well. As COP, I believe it is of paramount importance to be able to have a good understanding of how each part of a project is managed and delivered so I am better able to leverage skills across the project—even to use administrative staff and expertise to improve the efficiency of service delivery.

Did you implement any new processes or procedures at your workplace or in your job as a result of a specific workshop?

Yes, I have updated the program grants manual and strengthened the screening process for potential new partners as per USAID and Winrock policies. We are using the pre-award questionnaire and field capacity assessment tools, but we are also bringing in previous achievements, audit reports, financial reports, history with previous donors, and other relevant information as part of the overall selection process.

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

Sometimes, being so focused on programmatic implementation, achieving targets, and ensuring both quality and quantity, we tend to forget how much work our program managers and financial and administrative staff are doing and what they go through to ensure compliance with rules and regulations. Having attended the two courses and hearing from financial, admin, and HR staff about the difficulties and challenges they face trying to ensure smooth implementation of the activities, I have a better appreciation of their work. And, as I previously noted, I better understand the potential to utilize their expertise to deliver on the program side. I really think all COPs should attend these types of courses at least once. 

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