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Locally-led development. Ready to set sail…but on rough seas

Good news: the sector is finally ready for a major transformation. Not so good news: it will be a daunting journey.

In September 2021, the Bond Practice for Locally-Led Development Working Group conducted a survey to gauge the stage Bond members are at in their journey towards becoming locally-led.

The results? Impressive. Locally-led practice is on the agenda of all the organisations surveyed. All of them, with no exception. An initially fringe idea, shifting the power seems to have now become the mainstream. What does that mean in practice? Increased representation of “Global South” actors on boards, in-country advisory boards, feedback loops with communities, participatory monitoring evaluation and learning (MEL) practices, more equitable and trust-based partnerships, decision-making power over programmes increasingly held by the communities, interventions that are not time-bound, the list goes on.

This is when I give you the not so good news.

First of all, the survey shows that we still need to figure out a comprehensive pathway to devolve power. Is it through incremental change in different areas of work, from programme development to governance and fundraising, or a set of activities that need to happen concurrently and in a structured way? And where and with whom does change start? Is it with senior management, boards, “Global South” partners or the programmes’ team?

Is it better to start where there is the most energy and use that momentum to influence the rest of the organisation, or where there is less buy-in? Also, and importantly, what is the end goal of this process? Is it the complete shutdown of the “Global North” aid industry complex or a new paradigm of cooperation which still has “Northern” agencies as a major player, just morphed into a different role?

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Second, money. Funding, and compliance requirements linked to it, seem to be one of the biggest barriers to locally-led development. From a lack of unrestricted funds to overly complex funding applications, strict compliance requirements and programme design dictated by funding criteria rather than users’ needs, the way funding currently works paradoxically cuts off those organisations who need funding the most.

This excludes them from a game which seems to be tailor-made for those organisations – normally INGOs – with the resources and time to dedicate to fundraising. It also reinforces the role of international organisations as indispensable brokers. What would it take to fundamentally re-design how funding is allocated? The Bond Changing Donor Policy and Practice group is currently looking into that. But to me, we should start from the next challenge – the most important one.

Survey respondents believe that funders’ trust in the organisations at the forefront of development is still low. The widespread view is that donors – I am also going to add international organisations here – see these organisations as too weak, both in terms of capabilities and accountability, and therefore need “capacity building” at best, if not a “Northern” guarantor at worst.

This lack of trust and a paternalistic attitude remind us that a lot of anti-racist work needs to take place within “Northern” agencies to shake off the colonial legacy that the sector is permeated by. Rephrasing a survey respondent: we are assuming that change starts from a personal perspective and gets to the organisation, but sometimes it’s the other way around!

This leads to my final point. While it seems that “Northern agencies are recognising the imperative to move to locally-owned programming as the accepted standard, we need to constantly remind ourselves that this is not about us. There is already a strong movement of critics among “Southern” actors which sees this new attempt at localisation as yet another way for the “Global North” to control the narrative – an attempt that is being imposed on them rather than designed with them and on their terms.

There is a lot that the sector still needs to figure out, and initiatives like the Bond locally-led development are mushrooming everywhere to do exactly that. However, if we don’t want to wreck the momentum (like past attempts to localise) we need to actively listen, understand, and act on what the people at the very core of this endeavour have to say. Let’s get it right this time.

If you have read this blog with interest, please consider joining the conversation by becoming a member of the Practice for Locally-Led Development Working Group.


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