Why locally-led development must be at the heart of the new International Development Strategy

12 October 2021

There are only nine years left until the deadline for delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the moment we are falling short of achieving them, despite significant efforts by national governments, international donors, INGOs and hundreds of thousands of communities around the world.

Every one of us must remain laser focused on these vital goals. This is why the imminent release of the UK Government’s International Development Strategy matters. Despite the blow to the UK’s reputation and the harm done to communities living in extreme poverty following the cuts to the aid budget, the UKs role as a key player in the fight against extreme poverty and inequality can and must be maintained. But it requires us all to rethink the way we see development - to put power in the hands of people to determine their own futures and increase efforts to create systems that support better global decision making overall.

In July, Bond shared 31 key recommendations and principles that should underpin the new International Development Strategy (IDS). A "golden thread" linking many of the recommendations is the principle of self determination for local people - allowing them to make decisions to improve their futures. Locally led development places decisions about a person’s life and life chances in their hands, or as close to their sphere of influence as possible. The working definition for locally led development adopted by Bond is "initiatives owned and led by people in their own context".

It’s an eminently sensible principle and practice, which has somehow got lost in so much of international development, humanitarian and peacebuilding work. And yet it is already in the UK government’s promise to "leave no-one behind" in 2015. It is enshrined in the 2016 Grand Bargain agreement launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016. And more recently it is the cornerstone of a 2021 OECD agreement to support civil society, which is binding on all OECD-DAC members. Supporting locally led development is not only the morally and ethically right thing to do; it is also the most cost effective, impactful and sustainable thing to do. 

As the Bond report says, "To achieve the Grand Bargain commitments requires the UK government to fundamentally change the way it delivers Official Development Assistance (ODA), works with local communities and engages civil society. The UK government would need to relinquish its power and let local civil society lead. This starts with the UK government recognising that the power imbalances rooted in its colonial history still shape its development policy and practices. These imbalances have resulted in communities and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) being left out of decision-making, having their knowledge undervalued and being outcompeted for funds. The IDS is an opportunity to demonstrate that the UK is moving away from the idea of passive ‘beneficiaries’ to actors who are whole and resourceful."

This might seem like a radical proposition for some within government, but even a cursory analysis of the benefits and outcomes for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) own targets would show why such an approach could be transformational. Communities and local groups who have a say in how funds are spent and how priorities are set are more likely to feel greater ownership of the outcomes and find solutions to problems that arise. They are more likely to think about the sustainability of these efforts and hold duty bearers to account when their own governments fail them. Rights are strengthened and communities are strengthened when development is locally led.  

So what might that mean in practice? It means setting a goal to decentralise development decisions to the relevant national entities and local communities. It means new partnerships with local NGOs and different ways of measuring success. It means new, flexible funding mechanisms for local organisations and budget support to allow countries to strengthen their public sector and their support systems. It means taking opportunities to reform the wider system too. The IDS is designed to take a whole of government approach and this is a chance to use diplomacy, trade and other tools to reform international institutions to support a fairer economy and a more open and equitable society.

If the FCDO is committed to value for money, open societies, effective aid and equity for the world’s most marginalised people, it must place locally led development at the heart of its new International Development Strategy. This is a truly sustainable, fair and bold approach that the UK public would recognise and be proud of.

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.

Stephanie Draper
Bond

Stephanie Draper is Bond's chief executive.