A woman teaching a class

Credit: Greg Funnell

Trust for local communities must be at the heart of transformation

20 January 2021
Author: Dylan Mathews

One of my new year’s resolutions is to trust generously. This is not a naïve call to action to start trusting everything that we read on social media.

Rather, this is a call to action for the international development sector to trust local communities and the groups that represent them more: local communities and groups who are the first responders, the community mobilisers par excellence and the unsung heroes of most development, humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts globally.

Trust has to be at the centre of transformation

At Peace Direct, we work exclusively with local partners. We have no country offices and employ no expat staff, as we believe that country offices, however well intentioned, displace and often undermine local efforts. 

We were founded with the firm belief that the international humanitarian, peacebuilding and development ecosystem of actors was flawed in its preference for externally-led and top-down interventions. We felt that a transformation of the system is long overdue to achieve sustainable peace and development. Almost twenty years on and our commitment to this idea remains undiminished.  

Brilliant work has been done by the START Network, Adeso, the NEAR Network, #CharitySoWhite, the Global Fund for Community Foundations and many others, including new initiatives such as Bond’s sector catalyst programme. We are being challenged to do more and do better to transform the way we think and work, as well as how we see our roles as humanitarians, development practitioners or peacebuilders. 

The deepest of the roots that we are only beginning to tackle is the problem of structural racism, words that for too long have been taboo in our sector. The Black Lives Matter movement has taught us many things, including our own complicity in structurally racist thinking. This thinking shows up in many ways, including the notion that local communities and groups can’t be trusted, either because they “lack capacity” or the right project management skills, are inherently biased towards particular identity groups and are more likely to commit fraud. Such thinking can no longer be tolerated. 

How to start shifting power to local actors

In November, together with Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, we held a global consultation online to canvas the views of local activists on the “decolonising aid” debate and where it should go next. It was sobering to read so many examples of how local activists have been sidelined and marginalised by INGOs and donors in their own country. Many people commented that mistrust of local organisations is hard baked into the system. 

Listening to the participants, it felt as though we had come such a long way in being able to openly discuss these issues, and yet still had such a long way to go.

One of the most eloquent and articulate pleas came from Catherine Martha Agwang, founder of the Uganda Youth Development and Training Programme. She asked donors and INGOs to do four things: 

  • Fund courageously. She asked us to “have the courage to accept uncertainty and messiness in humanitarian response, and rely less on perfect proposals that have to be submitted in strict templates and timelines… And INGOs who are often sub-granting to smaller organisations must also have the courage to take a chance and invest in local actors, especially by making it easier for them to apply for funding independently.” 
  • Trust generously. She reminded us that we operate in such highly complex contexts where we can’t possibly know all the contextual factors, so trusting local communities more can help cut through the complexity. 
  • Measure differently. Be adaptive and don’t only monitor what is easy to measure.
  • Be a bridge, not an expert. Catherine said: “If INGOs keep imposing their well thought Western-centric project management standards onto local people and staff, they will always see them as lacking in capacity.” The task, she argues, is not to assume the lack of expertise, but to connect colleagues to the resources and power they need to implement successful projects — “transforming capacity building, into capacity bridging”.

These four requests are a reminder that we need to do so much more to genuinely shift power to local actors. Through the Bond sector catalyst programme, a small group of us are exploring ways to do this and its already quite clear just how interconnected and complicated the problems are. 

But as Catherine Agwang says, trust cuts through complexity. So if we are in search of new approaches, let’s first ask those who we claim to serve and trust them when they develop their own plans. I’ll be aiming to put this into practice in my own organisation, and I hope it’s a New Year’s Resolution that you might consider too.

About the author

Peace Direct

Dylan Mathews is CEO of Peace Direct a UK-based organisation that supports local people to prevent violent conflict and build sustainable peace around the world.