Q&A with Sani Daher, Creative’s Chief Operating Officer
By Michael J. Zamba
July 26, 2021
Creative Associates International named Sani Daher as Chief Operating Officer, who oversees the company’s Programs and Operations Divisions.
Daher joined Creative after a long and distinguished career with DAI, rising from positions to the field to its headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Among his recent positions, Daher was Chief Operating Officer of DAI USG and oversaw global operations for more than 75 U.S. government funded programs and a global workforce of more than 2,500 development professionals.
He started his career in global development in 1999. Daher left a prominent role in biomedical engineering because he saw an opportunity to do something useful for his home country of Palestine. Daher earned a master’s degree from Northwest University’s Kellogg School of Management, a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State University and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State University.
What attracted you to Creative?
Sani: I know Creative to be a pioneer in the fields of education and violence prevention. I have encountered staff from Creative both in Latin America and on the sides of the violence prevention conference in Los Angeles. I was always impressed by the high caliber experts on the Creative team and, indeed, the depth of their technical views and methods. I feel Creative is ripe for expanding its footprint into more technical areas and regions and I am thrilled to be part of the Creative team.
You are an engineer who had a successful career in business. What drew you to international development?
Sani: Great question. Early in my career I worked in biomedical engineering. I ran the mechanical engineering department for TOSHIBA Medical in San Francisco designing MRI machines. Then one day, I was visiting my parents in Jerusalem and ran into a dear friend and mentor! That is Jim Winkler, [currently Creative’s Vice President of the Economic Growth Division]. He was starting a USAID private sector support program in Palestine, and they needed an engineer that understood Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to help the pharmaceutical industry upgrade their manufacturing so they could meet international standards in order to export their products. At that time, I had been away from my country and family for about 10 years. I couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to do something within my area of expertise and closer to home. That’s how I got started and hooked ever since.
Tell us a little about your first development job?
Sani: As I just stated, I basically got started working in the field rather than in a home office. At first, I was focused on the technical work, but within two years, our Chief of Party and Deputy Chief of Party then kept expanding my role into more of a management role beyond the pharmaceutical industry to include all the industries we worked with. At the same time, I learned so much about the business model, compliance requirements, billing, etc.
Coming from the private sector, was your first development job what you expected?
Sani: Not at all. It was a bit of a shock at first. I remember vividly one day our Deputy Chief of Party said to me: “Sani, great work on the manufacturing standards, but it’s time to work on strengthening the association of Palestinian Pharmaceutical Companies so they can push for improvement in the public health law.” With a puzzled look on my face, I said to him, “Wait what? What does that have to do with me… I know nothing about that.” This is one big difference between doing technical work for private sector and doing it in international development. We have to take a more holistic view of the sector, or issues, and tackle them from multiple angles. It’s one reason I love this field.
What has kept you in development for more than two decades?
Sani: I get much satisfaction in putting local teams together that help tackle national challenges that otherwise may never be addressed. Local teams take special pride in solving their own problems, whether at national or local level. There is no better moment than when you see local staff stand proud as they celebrate the results of their program.
Your heritage and first work in development job were in the Middle East. Nonetheless, you were very successful with programming and operations in Central America. How was that transition, and how do these lessons shape your implementation?
Sani: As a person that grew up in a developing country, I know and appreciate the critical role local ownership plays in the success of programs. It’s my philosophy that you hire great local teams and empower them to figure things out, chart their own way forward and stand ready to be supportive. Central America is a special place with people who are warm, friendly, with competent expertise eager to move their countries forward. I figured all we need to do is to be sure we understand their cultural norms and practices and empower the teams we put together and they do the rest.
Local ownership is a key pillar of both USAID and Creative’s work. How can we best reflect local ownership in our design and implementation of programs?
Sani: Simple. Hire good local teams that can stand on their own. Take a step back, monitor and support progress. The initial designs normally come from USAID. Empowered project teams may. At times, negotiate tweaks to the design as conditions change on the ground. It’s important that we in HQ support them as they seek to make adjustments.
In general, how do you see the development landscape during the next five years?
Sani: The U.N Sustainable Development Goals as a strategic framework is causing shifts in the way donors think about the results and how we get there. Today, you see much more emphasis on private and local resources which is key to leveraging the limited donor funds to meet the required investments to accomplish the U.N goals. Equally important, as a result of donors seeking to leverage their resources, the ownership of these development initiatives is much broader and that helps ensure success. I believe these trends will continue and grow in importance, and we must position ourselves to support these efforts.
Fortunately, Creative is growing. How do you scale operations to meet demand but still be efficient?
Sani: That is a great question. There are two points I would like to make. First, if we set up metrics of efficiency for the sectors and new business to monitor, they will then be able to scale up or down as they see necessary based on market conditions without the interference of executive management. Second, it’s important to look for multiple ways our professionals can contribute to winning and managing—and then cross train staff. As an example, demand shifts from one practice to another over time. It’s important to equip and empower our teams to work across technical disciplines. Equally important is to ensure our operations support staff can support a project in all operational areas from start up to close down. As we achieve these two objectives, we will be able to efficiently scale up our business.
In the area of program implementation, what key client priorities/trends have been most impactful on strategies and tactics over the last five years?
Sani: I have seen more and more all donors innovate new ways to engage local and international private sector where possible. There has been some good progress on this front across donors, and it’s important for us to support these efforts.
How do you balance between Creative as a mission-driven company and as a client-focused organization?
Sani: The two go hand in hand. We are all motivated by the mission of our client to provide assistance and improve lives around the globe. Being organized as a for profit firm provides a disciplined framework in which to pursue and deliver on our mission.
What is special about Jerusalem?
Sani: I grew up in Jerusalem attending school within the walls of the old City of Jerusalem. It still is the most beautiful old city I have ever seen. No doubt the history and the multi-culture and religious significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims make this a special place for all of us. It is heartbreaking though to see the endless conflict in the city and in the region. I hope and pray the city will soon see a lasting peace based on justice for all.
Your hobby is fixing old motorcycles and cars. What drew you to this hobby?
Sani: I always tinkered with stuff as a kid. I remember one day when I was about 12 years old, my Mom came home to find her washing machine completely disassembled. She freaked out and knew immediately where to look for me. “I needed the motor for an experiment!” As mad as she was, she still gave me an hour to finish my experiment and then put the washer back together before the end of the day. Thank you, Mom! She allowed me to develop this hobby. On the weekends, when I take a break and go to my garage to work on a motorcycle, it recharges my batteries and also allows me to process different work issues on my mind.
You have a great deal of cross-cultural experiences and training, particularly while studying in Jerusalem. How is this relevant to international development?
Sani: I did my Executive MBA at the Kellogg Recanati school in Tel-Aviv at the height of the second uprising. Indeed, this was a very rich experience in business, politics and everything in between. I gained great appreciation for cultural differences, not only between different nationalities but just as important within each society. It’s important to take the time to understand the different points of view within a community before engaging in activities. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Creative was founded by four enterprising women from four different backgrounds. It continues to hold diversity as a core component of the company. How do we keep this alive at Creative?
Sani: Its impressive what they have accomplished especially when you consider that they started the firm in a more challenging business environment back in the 1970s. Businesses that are more diverse and inclusive are more successful. So, it is imperative to have a continuous dialogue on these issues and put together an action plan to ensure we avoid implicit and explicit biases in our hiring and management practices.